The Internet is still in its twenties—or its 2.0ties. Already millions of learned people and millions of powerful computers, or smartphones, are massively interconnected, in real-time, on a global scale. As a result, we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘social mind’ thanks to digital tools and new media. This new phenomenon facilitates the application of collective intelligence and creativity to devise innovative solutions in academia, industries and policy environments. Thus, in every European country, there are thousands of non-scientists with access to more knowledge of physics than Galileo or of evolution than Darwin. The challenge is to make the most of this so-called long-tail of knowledge. Ultimately, it could be put to good use to enhance science. It could also help researchers address current world issues, while ensuring growth opportunities of tomorrow.
As part of the Socientize project, funded by the EU, we are focusing on so-called citizen science. In such an approach, citizens actively participate in science either by contributing an intellectual effort, by sharing their knowledge, or by bringing their tools or resources, such as computer processing power. Our aim is to provide policy recommendations highlighting how to reach different scientific, social, economic, educational goals by reaping the benefit resulting from the interaction between science, society and policy actors.
Our previously published green paper compiled a list of cross-cutting concerns from the different communities involved in citizen science. Now, as part of the development of our white paper, we have opened a new online consultation to collect some additional input on our policy recommendations regarding citizen science in Europe. We highly encourage readers to contribute here with their own ideas, publications and works in this website.
Ultimately, we are aiming to promote the transformation of the scientific system towards more democratic science. This means facilitating the active involvement of citizens in research. In the process, citizens will be educated on the current state of scientific research and gain digital skills. In addition, being associated with research in such a way will provide citizens with a greater sense of initiative and ownership. We hope that the contributions from citizens will become a new driving force for addressing global challenges, such as sustainable development and inclusive growth.
Europe has a reputation for being focused on well-being, social innovation and world-class science. The idea behind the project is to ensure that present concerns of citizens are addressed with innovative solutions provided by multi-disciplinary collaborative research. If we want to effectively understand socio-economic behaviour, we need to consider individuals and crowds as subjects and actors of research. Thus, we need to merge approaches from STEM disciplines, social sciences and humanities.
To achieve this goal, we need digital technologies because they make it possible to increase the critical mass of participants in research and to build communities of knowledge-sharing. They thus make it easier to understand the complexity of our current world. Such technologies also help make scientific results more accessible. And they facilitate citizens’ engagement on research activities. A wide range of new products and services delivering social empowerment benefits have emerged in the past few years. These include, among others, survey research site AllOurIdeas, micro-crafting crowdsourcing site CrowdCrafting or crowdsourcing environmental research site PublicLab.
But more innovations and tangible results are required both in public and private systems. Such innovations would constitute brownie points that would allow researchers to gain recognition, particularly in appraisal or tenures. In parallel, it would give volunteers practical benefits such as a small financial support towards their internet bill. This will also stimulate volunteers’ further motivation to keep on contributing. More research is required to analyse the economic impact of using external resources in scientific research as a means to lower costs.
In our project, we consider using non-professional existing resources such as volunteers’ desktop computers or smartphones as an alternative funding strategy. Technology is bound to increasingly facilitate crowdsourced research activities. Besides running scientific simulations over external volunteers’ computers, researchers are using crowdsourcing in many other ways. For example, it can be used in the case of experimental data collection or analysis, for applications in analysing fuzzy cells’ pictures, understanding semantics or saving energy.
Until now, research and development has almost always been represented in the far left of the innovation channel. Typically, science is represented as a starter of knowledge transfer to markets and society. Instead, in our project, we assume that this flow goes both ways. This means that innovations coming from society also need to be considered —and not solely from science. This approach would then need to be taken into account when updating and improving scientific and policy mechanisms.
Millions of European citizens are already participating in many conscious ways in participatory experiments such as Zooniverse, BOINC, or Fold.it. It is now tine for scientists to move on from traditional one-way dissemination and outreach activities towards the public. Researchers need to start empowering amateurs and engaging volunteers who will contribute to their research work through individual contributions and collective collaborations.
Socientize coordinator, University of Zaragoza, Ibercivis Foundation, Spain.
Featured image credit: Scott Maxwell via Fotolia
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