Crowdsourcing Science

crowdsourcing science

One day in grad school, my lab mate Evan invited me over to play PlayStation.  As far as I knew, Evan participated in exactly two activities in life:  science and video games.  (He now has a son, so I assume childcare makes it a total of three life activities—or, given how much attention young kids require, one.)

As it turned out, my suspicion about his life of science and video games was doubly confirmed.  Here’s what I saw when I walked into his apartment:  His video games were busy doing science.

On his television screen, Evan’s PlayStation was twisting amino acid chains into various conformations, flashing numbers, twisting again.  Evan subscribed to something called Folding@home, a Stanford-based research project that asked the question, “If we need tens of thousands of computers to calculate the dynamics of protein folding, why not just ask tens of thousands of people if we can borrow their computers for a bit?”

It was a new concept at the time, and to date, Folding@home has appropriated the downtime of more than 100,000 home computers—or, as in Evan’s case, PlayStations—to answer scientific questions too massive to contemplate otherwise.  It was like a screensaver, but a productive one.  Evan pressed a button on his PlayStation, the proteins stopped folding, and Grand Theft Auto began.

It’s the first time I’d ever heard of the concept of crowdsourcing science, of asking the public to help solve a scientific problem.  With Folding@home, everyday people (or, more likely, biophysics nerds like me and Evan) could play a realistic role in important research.  Granted, people were only donating their spare flops, not their actual brains, but it was a start.

It’s now about a decade later.  I have my own children, which means the idea of playing video games is about as absurd as the idea of sleeping late.  One morning this winter, I woke up to hear my wife and four-year-old daughter doing something on a laptop at the kitchen table, and I hoped like hell that it wasn’t some Barbie show Netflix recommended while I wasn’t looking.  Netflix is always doing that.

“So,” my wife asked my daughter, “what do you think?”

She stared at the screen, uncertain.  “Um…I think it’s the same.”

“Okay.  So click here.”  My daughter clicked, then smiled.  She had just participated in a scientific research project—not a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, but a real data-gathering exercise with real scientists whose results will be, perhaps unknown to them, partially provided by a pre-kindergartener.

It’s something called Match My Whale, a citizen science project that asks anyone interested to help marine biologists classify humpback whale flukes from the coast of Australia.  Compared with attaching tags to animals, it’s a cheaper, less invasive way to track whales, but perhaps more importantly, it lets my daughter—and thousands of others like her—do what kids want to do but we often prevent them from doing.  It lets her help.

By the time a student graduates high school, he or she may have had a handful of different science teachers, watched dozens of science demonstrations, and maybe even glitter-glued the word “HYPOTHESIS” to construction paper.  “Science,” as they know it, is something pasted on a tri-fold poster board.  It’s a small, controlled explosion, catalyzed by Mentos, or Alka-Seltzer, or dry ice.  It’s quizzes about igneous rocks, batteries made from citrus fruit, filmstrips about how the caterpillar becomes—wait for it—yes, I know you learned this last year, but the curriculum says we have to do it again—a butterfly.  Write the word “larva” for five points.

Yet how many high school graduates have met a real, working scientist for more than an hour?  How many understand what scientists truly do?  I know I didn’t even properly understand it until I worked in a lab myself.

Google “citizen science,” and you’ll find a bevy of opportunities to study wildlife, contribute weather data, and map the environment.  (You’ll also find a photo of a man yelling at grass, because Google is like that.)

It’s not exactly new, but thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, citizen science is exploding in scope.  Just as easily as you can check the weather or read a Facebook feed, you can share data and observations with scientists who actually want to hear them.

We laud citizen science as a powerful tool for the scientists, the ability to crowdsource data gathering and supercharge our research—and some truly remarkable discoveries have come from non-scientist volunteers.  But no less valuable is citizen science’s impact on citizens, the legitimate openness it represents, a way of welcoming the public rather than telling them what’s good for them.

The practice of crowdsourcing science may not work for all research. But as it grows in popularity, perhaps its greatest virtue is in demonstrating that science isn’t some impenetrable, esoteric practice of geeks in lab coats—it’s something my daughter can do over breakfast.