The notion that ordinary citizens with a strong interest in science – call them amateurs, enthusiasts, aficionados or even cheerleaders – can participate actively in cutting-edge science via the Web is no longer controversial. Galaxy Zoo (cataloguing galaxy images) and Foldit (folding proteins) are poster children for the citizen cyberscience movement. Perhaps even more intriguing are a number of smaller, less well-known projects like PrimeGrid (searching for new prime numbers) and Herbaria@home (digitizing archived historical plant clippings), where an amateur created a project, which is producing data professional scientists want to get their hands on.

But allowing flesh-and-blood citizens to enter the laboratory and actually do hands-on research is a much more radical proposal. For sure, there are nice examples of educational initiatives that get high-school kids involved in real lab-bench science. But letting just any old science enthusiast into the lab seems fraught with risks. Yet that is the long term goal of an experiment that my colleagues and I at Tsinghua University in Beijing are planning to carry out, in a space we have dubbed the Open Science Lab.

To be sure, we are starting from very modest beginnings. From a room next to my office, in a drab office block beside the main gates of Tsinghua, I can hear the tiny electronic squeals of a 3D printer, busy building a miniature skull. The printer stands in a room that we converted into makeshift lab space just a month ago, along a corridor we occupied a little over a year ago to start up Tsinghua’s first interdisciplinary research centre, the Centre for Nano and Micro Mechanics, CNMM. The lab is so new, there are still gaping holes in the wall where the air conditioners will be installed.

The 3D printer is not the world’s fastest. It can’t print exotic materials. It doesn’t have particularly high resolution. It has some rough edges – quite literally. But it has something else going for it. We bought it from a small company called Beijing Maxpace, set up by amateur enthusiasts here in Beijing, who belong to the local chapter of a global “maker community”, an informal network of people who just love to make stuff. In many ways, the maker community resembles the open source community of the software world, and in particular in their passion for what they do.

A Passion for Science

The neatest feature of our 3D printer, to my mind, is not the device itself, but the extremely enthusiastic after-sales service it comes with. We recently called Ming Zhang, the young man who sold it to us, to tell him that we were inviting a colleague, George Chen, from the Bioscience Department round to discuss a project. Ming immediately jumped in a cab to come over to Tsinghua.

What happened then was fun to watch. As he saw it printing, George got increasingly excited about the device, its ability to produce highly porous materials, and the amazing wealth of 3D designs being shared on the Web by enthusiasts, via a site called Thingiverse. George asked about using a new type of bioplastic that his research group makes, in the 3D printer. Ming was enthused by the new challenge of how to get the plastic powder, produced in the guts of bacteria, to work in his device. The outcome after an hour of intense discussion was a project for one of George’s students, who jotted down Ming’s phone number in his log book. A new pro-am partnership was born.

Nothing new here, you might say. After all, high-tech companies are often teaming up with academics on research projects – there are obvious win-win benefits in this sort of collaboration. But it was clear to me that the reason Ming had dropped everything to meet George went a good deal deeper than just the distant prospect of another sale. He was really keen to see his device used in a novel way. You could sense the relish of being confronted with a tough challenge.

Now extrapolate this enthusiasm to a room full of amateur makers and professional scientists, trying to build neat stuff together, and learn from each other. That’s where the Open Science Lab is headed. Such hackfests are common in the software world. With the Citizen Cyberscience Centre and the support of a fellowship from the South-African Shuttleworth Foundation, I was able to experiment with a version of hackfests where scientists meet software developers, here in Beijing, but also in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, New York, London and Berlin. Everywhere, new and unexpected things happened by mixing scientists, citizens and software geeks, and many promising projects have been born this way.

Open Science Lab will enable the same sort of inspired hacking to happen for 3D printers and a number of other scientific tools that have been open sourced, in particular a whole slew of sensors that can be built on top of the open-source Arduino micro-controller. What will the Open Science Lab look like in five years time? Well, let me tell you about my role model: ITP.

Artistic Inspiration

I stumbled on the Interactive Telecommunications Program, ITP, a masters programme tucked away in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, by pure fluke. I invited myself for a visit using sheer chutzpah. And I’m due to teach a course there this autumn on citizen cyberscience as a result.

The place can best be described as MIT’s Media Lab turned upside down. Dan O’Sullivan, who chairs ITP, is the guy who put that pretty picture in my head. What he means by this inverted analogy is that curiosity-driven students decide what happens in this bustling space, not career-driven professors. Everything is about the high-tech student projects, yet many of the students have no background in technology. They want to make stuff that is cool – technology is just a means to an end for them. Although there is a formal educational framework here, this is as close as I know to a situation where ordinary citizens are driving technological innovation.

As befits such an unusual academic environment, ITP attracts unusual genius. Tom Igoe, one of the inventors of Arduino, shares an office, cluttered with bits and bobs of electronics, with Clay Shirky, whose books such as Cognitive Surplus have done so much to popularize the rapidly evolving world of citizen-driven solutions in science and business. When I visited ITP last month, Tom was teaching his students how to track monkeys. Lesson one: go to the zoo and study what monkeys do. Clay was trying to get his students to tackle the challenge of creating better conversational spaces on the Web, so people will collaborate rather than curse at each other.

But at the end of the day, the students take the course in their own hands, developing myriad projects based on what they have learned. And some of those projects go well beyond the walls of ITP. Project Noah, for example, is a tool for documenting wildlife on smartphones that has been spun off with support from National Geographic.

Whither Open Science?

If a bunch of art students can do this (ok, let’s be fair, there are some very tech-savvy students amongst them!) what happens if we mix science students into the broth? And what happens when science students team up with the maker community, open source enthusiasts and other skilled non-professionals, to solve problems that are befuddling the pros of science?

Over dinner last night in a local cafe, the director of Tsinghua’s CNMM, Quanshui Zheng, lent over the table excitedly as we discussed the prospects for Open Science Lab. What he said, effectively, was that for years, Tsinghua University had molded students into a single form, the standard academic 1.0. It was high time to have a little craziness added into this formula, to produce original thinkers, not publication drones.

That, coming from a leading academic at China’s top science and engineering University, is a pretty amazing statement. Whether Open Science Lab can live up to these expectations, time will tell.