Could ‘Citizen Science’ Be Better Than Academy Science?

A new approach to modern scholarship, called crowd science or citizen science and utilizing volunteers from around the world, turns science into games. Already it is making contributions to the science of ecology, medicine and astronomy.

A team of volunteer scientists with the FoldIt project recently deciphered the folding of a protein important in AIDS research.

Image courtesy of FoldIt.

Crowdsourcing — drawing from many people’s brains, often from all over the world, to solve a puzzle — has made its way into science research. In the process, it is “breaking down some of the old divisions between the highly educated mandarins of the academy and the curious amateurs out in the world.”

That’s according to Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist who writes for The Boston Globe.

In the recent column “How crowdsourcing is changing science,” Cook writes: “Science is, for the most part, a closed society organized into little fiefdoms of highly trained specialists, which means only a few minds engage with any given problem.” But this “new approach to the conduct of modern scholarship, called crowd science or citizen science” has, in the last few years, “generated notable contributions to fields as disparate as ecology, AIDS research, and astronomy.”

This new approach, Cook adds, is challenging traditional ideas about where scientific innovation will come from:

Its early successes, which have shocked even the architects of the approach, suggest that over time pro-am collaborations hold the potential to alter the landscape of science in important ways, harnessing countless able brains to do work that was once the province of a few overwhelmed experts. And as it does, it also offers an uncomfortable insight: There are ways that the structure of modern science may actually be limiting what we can learn.

Cook, who tweets at @garethideas, describes one project where scientists at the University of Washington “created a game called FoldIt, which gives players an image of a protein molecule and video game-like tools for folding the molecule. As the energy required to maintain the molecule in a particular shape drops — meaning it’s closer to nature’s solution — a player’s score increases.”

FoldIt, Cook continues, “is a potentially addictive game that requires excellent spatial reasoning. Some players excelled at it — indeed, some became whizzes, and the researchers put their skills to work on unsolved problems. In September, the scientists announced that a team of its players had deciphered the folding of a protein important in AIDS research.”

This kind of collaborative work is being encouraged financially in the science world. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is financing “the first open call for proposals by researchers who wish to develop citizen science projects which take advantage of the experience, tools and community of the Zooniverse,” according to a notice at the Citizen Science Alliance. The website Zooniverse is where much of this volunteer science is being coordinated.

The notice says that “Proposals are welcomed from scientists or researchers in any discipline that would significantly benefit from the active participation of tens or hundreds of thousands of volunteers.”

For more on how organizations are using the “collective intelligence” of crowds to do their work, see Thomas W. Malone, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas’s 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review article “The Collective Intelligence Genome.” The article draws from nearly 250 examples of web-enabled collective intelligence and identifies a small set of building blocks that are combined and recombined in various ways in different collective intelligence systems.

3 Comments On: Could ‘Citizen Science’ Be Better Than Academy Science?

  • Ciarán Mc Mahon | December 7, 2011

    I submit that ‘crowd science’ is a better label than ‘citizen science’, as the latter sounds very much like what occurred in the 16th and 17th century, performed by the likes of Hooke, Boyle and Galileo, who were, to all intents and purposes, private citizens engaging in science.

  • Foldit by m90 - Pearltrees | December 7, 2011

    [...] A team of volunteer scientists with the FoldIt project recently deciphered the folding of a protein important in AIDS research. Image courtesy of FoldIt . Could ‘Citizen Science’ Be Better Than Academy Science? [...]

  • Leslie Brokaw | December 8, 2011

    That’s a great observation, Ciarán — thanks for submitting it.

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