New York’s World Science Festival, in the last week of May, is an amazing series of science-related events. If you want to see stars, and I mean the Hollywood variety, this is the place. Paul Rudd will be playing Einstein. Alan Alda will be handing out Kavli prizes to the great and good of science.

And the great and good are in no short supply. There’s Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the space station, talking about the Right Stuff for research in space. There’s Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, talking about black holes, quantum physics and the Big Bang. There’s Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who discovered the breast cancer gene. There’s even a gaggle of celebrity writers like E. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Steven Pinker, talking about how they write about science.

It’s great that so many brilliant people are willing to share their wisdom with the crowd. But what about the wisdom of the crowd? Where does that get shared? If all goes to plan, we’ll see some pretty amazing crowdsourced science taking shape at Science Hack Day NYC, the second time this popular global event has happened in the Big Apple, and the first time in downtown Brooklyn. In case you’re wondering what a Science Hack Day is, the short answer is tinkering with neat technology to do cool science. Here’s a longer answer. Anyone can pitch a project, and try to assemble a team to work on it. After 24+ hours of non-stop hacking, teams present their results to judges, and some win awards for their efforts.

I’ve written about the winners of last year’s Science Hack Day in this blog. All prizes went to projects pitched – not by professional scientists – but by students or alums from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. These weren’t ordinary arts students, mind you. They were all part of an amazingly creative Masters programme at the edge of art, design and technology, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, ITP. And they had a home field advantage, since the event happened at ITP. But this year, I expect to see some of the winning projects pitched by people who are completely outside of the academic world – real amateurs. That’s what I call upscience: inverting the pyramid of scientific enquiry, atop which brilliant professionals normally stand, so that inspired amateurs can shape scientific agendas that matter to them, their families and communities.

Talking trash cans

My favourite upscientist these days is a guy called Sean Auriti. He and his team turned up at Science and the City – a smaller hackfest I’ve been running for the last couple of years, which focuses on urban science themes. Sean’s team quietly assembled the hardware and software for a fully functional interactive trash can, called eCan, that gives points as rewards for people cleaning up the streets, using the latest Q-code and mobile phone technologies to interact with the users – or more accurately, the players, since this clever device effectively gamifies a major environmental issue.

Now my colleagues and I at CUSP, NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, are helping Sean get eCan beyond just a proof of principle. We’re providing technical feedback and advice about how to turn eCan into an educational tool. We’re also helping Sean make connections to organizations and companies that have a vested interest in seeing this innovative device succeed. But eCan is Sean’s project, not ours. And it will be on display at Science Hack Day, where Sean will be looking to make an even niftier version of it.

That’s upscience to me, and it’s definitely not the usual order of things. Normally scientists are supposed to have the bright ideas, and spin them off with the help of investors and on the back of erudite papers and expensive patents. But when it comes to urban science, at least, the crowd may have the best ideas. After all, you don’t need to be an expert on black holes to see that New York has a trash problem. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have a bright idea for dealing with that problem.

What I like most about eCan is what you see when you lift the lid. A Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, and other assorted low-cost electronics. Typical ingredients of open-source hardware projects being devised in maker spaces all over the US and around the world. (Sean helped start a small makerspace in Brooklyn a few years ago, it turns out.) Now imagine what would happen if more mainstream scientists spent time with makers like Sean, and helped them turn their ideas into practical tools for science, urban or otherwise.

Better still, don’t imagine it. Come to Science Hack Day NYC and you’ll see this happening in practice. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a hacker or a maker, you can participate in the Citizen Science Explorers Program that we’re organizing each afternoon, and learn how to be an active participant in ongoing research, by collecting, analyzing or simulating data on your laptop or your smartphone.

Science Hack Day NYC is possible thanks to many people. Thanks to Ariel Waldman for creating the Science Hack Day meme and sharing it so generously with the world. Thanks to Caroline Gelb for convincing her colleagues at World Science Festival that they needed this kind of hands-on event in their portfolio, and working tirelessly with her team to make the event happen. Thanks to George Agudow and Dan O’Sullivan at ITP, as well as the many students there who have patiently supported my hackfest mania, through hurricanes and snowstorms. Thanks to Dana Karwas and Luke Dubois at NYU’s Media and Games Network MAGNET, for generously sharing their space and their time in order to bring Science Hack Day to Brooklyn. And thanks to my many colleagues at CUSP for embracing an out-of-the-ordinary event: Steve, Ari, Nick, Masoud, Greg, Charlie, Justin, and the CUSP students who are behind a lot of the projects in the Citizen Science Explorers Programme. Thanks to Liz and her colleagues at Public Lab, my fave upscience organization, for their unstinting support of the event. And above all, thanks to the hundreds of New Yorkers who have come to science hackfests, both big and small, that I’ve helped organized over the last couple of years. Your enthusiasm and dedication is what makes these events come alive!


Children learn how science works mainly from fact-filled textbooks. The wider public experiences scientific discovery second-hand, through best-seller books, newspapers and television, as well as online formats like science blogs and TED Talks. Even for many undergraduate science students, the majority of hands-on experience comes from lab exercises which aim to support textbook learning, rather than further scientific research.

As a result, we live in a world where everyone talks about science, but hardly anyone does it. Only a miniscule fraction of the planet’s population, an elite of professional scientists at the top of an intellectual pyramid, produces the science that appears in textbooks and on TV. The rest of the world consumes scientific facts or is force-fed them in school, often resulting in conceptual indigestion and sometimes lifelong science phobia.

In a world where the number of people with the means to contribute to science is exploding, thanks to to the internet, mobile devices, rapid economic growth and improved access to education, this situation is bound to change. That’s why I believe we need to define a new type of science that inverts the traditional intellectual pyramid: upscience.

Upscience builds on current notions of crowdsourcing, citizen science and frugal science. But it is distinct from all of these. Upscience is a new mode of bottom-up problem-driven research that connects people directly with the scientific process, and is driven by their concerns and interests, in contrast to the top-down publication-driven professional science that defines the current-day research establishment.

Upscience is not a dream. It’s already happening.

There are a host of examples of upscience in action I’m aware of, and surely many more I’m not. Public Lab, for example, is a grass-roots organization set up in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that is developing low-cost scientific tools and analysis software for environmental research.

Radiation-Watch.org is the brainchild of Yang Ishigaki, a Japanese citizen frustrated with the lack of government data about radiation levels in post-Fukushima Japan, who has made a low cost open source radiation detector that plugs into smart phones. Using this, his fellow citizens can upload data to publicly shared maps.

The sorts of challenges that upscience is tackling are not restricted to environmental issues, though.

Prime Grid is a project established originally by a Lithuanian teenager, Rytis Slatkevicius, to find prime numbers, that has produced one of the world’s largest databases of such numbers, now used by professional mathematicians.

Project Noah is a spin-off from students at ITP, a hybrid art and technology programme. The project is designed for sharing beautiful images of animals and plants. The project founders deliberately eschewed a scientific purpose. Yet members of the project’s online community have managed to make significant discoveries, for example of new insect species.

These are just a few examples of upscience I know. It’s my hope that this blogpost can catalyze friends and colleagues to help me list many more, and start to grow greater awareness of upscience.

The term citizen science does not do full justice to the unique, bottom-up nature of such initiatives. Indeed, citizen science is increasingly defined as something that professional scientists, or “practitioners”, do with the help of volunteers. Projects like SETI@home, eBird and Galaxy Zoo are shining examples of this trend, which exploit the power of the crowd, and boast hundreds of thousands of participants.

There’s nothing wrong with citizen science. Indeed, I am a big proponent of this approach to public engagement in science, having spent the better part of the last decade helping colleagues around the world set up such projects, as part of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre.

But I believe there are fundamental differences between science projects that start in academia, and those that are borne out of the aspirations of amateurs. The differences are both at the level of personal motivation and social impact. I’m convinced this second mode of research is going to become so important in the coming years, it deserves its own name.

Of course, we could just call this bottom-up science. Many people do. Self-initiated research is another synonym. And many researchers would happily lump this under the term crowdsourcing without further ado. But let’s be frank: branding matters. An emerging and important trend deserves a memorable name. So I’m dubbing this trend upscience, not just because that’s pithy and positive, but in order to skirt the pejorative social connotations that terms like bottom-up and crowdsourcing imply.

It has not escaped my attention that, by the same token, most of what the scientific establishment does today could be qualified as “downscience”. The pejorative connotation is perhaps fitting, as we live in an age of increasing disillusion with both the quality and relevance of research produced by the traditional top-down academic system. As a recent and thought-provoking exposé in The Economist emphasized, this disillusion is based on hard data, not just the opinions of a few disenchanted souls.

The biggest problem with downscience, though, is not its quality. It’s that it does not scale. A world in which the 0.1% do science, coating it in layers of opaque technical jargon and chaining it to intellectual property rights, while the 99.9% passively endure the often unforeseen, sometimes revolutionary and occasionally disastrous consequences of that research, is simply not sustainable.

This isn’t just an issue of social justice. It’s more basic than that. We live in a period of human history where, due to population growth and rising standards of living, the number of people who are educated and wealthy enough to do science is exploding. And the demand for pertinent scientific research to tackle urgent social, environmental and health issues is exploding, too. Brick and mortar universities – the top of the traditional pyramid – just can’t keep up with the pace at which new researchers need to be minted around the world.

If we are to harness science effectively to solve the myriad challenges facing a human population that may peak above 10bn later this century, then we need new ways of educating budding researchers and doing relevant research that scale. Upscience scales.

I’m planning to pursue the upscience theme in this blog, and gather together more examples of upscience and upscientists. So please, if you like the idea, share your thoughts on upscience and further examples of it here.

Next Page »