People sometimes ask me now that I am out of the lab if I ever miss doing science, and I’m never quite sure how to answer that. It all depends on how you define “doing science.” I think the question they are really asking is whether I miss the lab work. That’s a different question for me. I think “lab work” and “doing science” stopped being synonymous at some point after I fell down the administrative rabbit hole of lab management. In that sense, I missed “doing science” long before I left the lab.
But what does it mean to “do science”, anyway?
This is hardly a semantic question. Modern science is often perceived as something carried out by experts. When we say something is “scientifically proven”, it implies (rightly or wrongly) that it has passed some rigorous and authoritative standard, and the gatekeepers of that standard are, naturally, the highly-trained professionals we call scientists. But in turning science as a whole over to the expert, we introduce a barrier to broader public understanding and appreciation for science as a means of learning about the world. In other words, if science is something done by experts, and you’re not an expert, then science is off-limits to you.
It’s an ironic twist considering that science itself is a relatively young profession. The earliest pioneers in science were often self-taught amateurs and tinkerers — people who had little formal training but were passionately curious. Their work laid the foundation for modern science, and yet, if they were working today in their basements and garages, we might question the validity of their contributions to science. Today they would be viewed as quacks, operating on the fringes of science — not “real” scientists.
Obviously, the nature of some fields of research is much different today than it was 200 years ago. There are all kinds of sane, practical, reasons not to be doing molecular biology in your basement. But I think we have to be cautious about confusing the practise of science with the spirit of it. The spirit of scientific inquiry demands that there be a place for the amateurs and the tinkerers — those who relish what Einstein once called “the sheer joy of finding out.”
Recently, I was reminded of a paper published a couple of years ago in Biology Letters, written by a group of 10-year-olds, about an experiment their class had conducted with bees. I remember being charmed by the elegant simplicity of it all, right down to their hand-drawn crayon figures – these children had embarked on a project from which they came to understand science as a simple process of asking questions and finding the answers. In a recent TED talk, their advisor recounts the challenges of trying to get the students’ work published — the “experts” in this case did not believe that children could make a valuable contribution to science. And yet, they’d answered a question that none of the experts had ever answered before. They discovered something new.
To me, that’s what the spirit of science is all about, and that’s something I believe should be accessible to everyone. People need to know how science works. Science simply can’t thrive as a mysterious black box that only experts can decipher.
One of the wonderful consequences of the growing popularity of “crowdsourcing” is that it can also be applied to scientific problems. Thanks to websites like Scistarter, Zooniverse, and Games for Change, researchers can now directly engage the public in collecting or analyzing data on a large scale. Through so-called “citizen science” projects, you can contribute to research just by observing what’s in your own neighbourhood, or by playing a computer game. The very definition of what it means to “do science” is changing, and I think it’s only for the better.
It also means, incidentally, that in some ways I get to “do” more science now than I did in my final year in the lab. I mean, if I am going to spend a Saturday playing games instead of writing papers, why not get sucked into a real-life puzzle like Fold.it, EteRNA, or Phylo?
Projects like this also open up new interdisciplinary possibilities. Have graphic design skills? You can make infographics for NASA. Or if you’re into music, you might try your hand at describing digitized collections of piano scores. Simply by moving these projects online and tapping into the public’s interests, there’s a whole new opportunity to break down disciplinary boundaries and stereotypes about what constitutes “real science.”
Perhaps most importantly, citizen science projects have the incredible potential to start a public discussion about science, something that politicians, journalists, and scientists often aim to do, only to fall seriously short of engaging their audience.
It will be interesting to see how these early forays into public engagement in science play out (no pun intended). I hope it’s the beginning of a more enlightened era for scientific communication, one that engages the public actively rather than expecting them to be passive consumers of knowledge handed down by experts.