Leader: Citizens, to the lab and front bench

Scientists are harnessing the public's power, but they could go further: a partnership would yield academic and political results

October 20, 2011

The internet has helped to prise open the doors of the university to give the public a peek at the riches inside, and it offers wonderful possibilities for engaging people in the excitement of intellectual exploration. But it also presents a further opportunity: for the people to partner the professionals.

In the past decade or so, eager amateurs have been relegated to relatively passive, collaborative research roles, such as counting birds or classifying galaxies. Most such citizen-science projects are based in the US, where universities have long reached out to schools and local communities. Scientific American magazine features a section detailing the latest such projects, including the Turtle Roadway Mortality Study in Massachusetts; the Morphology Analysis Project for Participatory Exploration and Research, where people can work alongside Nasa scientists to explore the bottom of two Canadian lakes; and PiggyDemic, which uses a Facebook application to help Tel Aviv University researchers to study how a virus mutates and spreads among humans.

But they can contribute more, says Darrel Ince, professor of computing at The Open University. "I believe we are now at the point where academics can encourage their non-academic collaborators to take a more active and in-depth approach," he says in our cover story. Now that scientists have harnessed the internet to create virtual laboratories full of rich information, he adds, citizen scientists can go beyond merely collecting data to exploring them alongside professional researchers.

Such a move would help to promote science and aid scientists, too. For as data sets grow exponentially, the skills needed to process all the information gathered are often scarce in the lab. Individuals with day jobs in the commercial world can possess more statistical expertise than can be found in university science departments.

As academics warm to citizen scientists as partners, they must also open up to the notion of them as potential research leaders. Professor Ince cites the example of Sharon Terry, a college chaplain, who says she "didn't know a gene from a hubcap" until her children were diagnosed with a rare inherited disorder. She taught herself microbiology and with her husband, a fire-sprinkler designer, set out to find the gene responsible for the condition. Her work led to the sequencing of the gene, the creation of a DNA database and new funds for research. She is now co-director of a consortium of 33 labs.

In setting out on her quest, however, she was hampered by having to pay to access the latest scientific research in journals.

Here then is a vital point about engaging with the public. To be productive and mutually beneficial, it must be a partnership. If academics want citizens to help them with their work, they must share their results. The open-access movement and institutional repositories are a start, but universities could do more to share their digital resources. Only two UK institutions (London and Exeter) feature among the 19 taking part in the Jstor alumni access pilot, which gives former students access to the same content available to staff and current students.

If universities want the people on their side, not least when they lobby government, what better way to ensure that support than to allow them to be full partners in their endeavours?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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