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.