How might social technologies be used to harmonise the scientific community with the rest of us to produce world-changing results?
Marriage and half a year of touring the world have come between me and the momentum this blog almost got in 2009. Now landed, at last, in our new home country of Northern Ireland, I put this evening aside to drag my travel-weary self back into thinking about the things which consumed me before we left, particularly my career, the web, and the interaction of the two. I arranged a break from the computer to watch the BBC’s new science documentary, Wonders of the Solar System. The life-giving light around which the series revolves is Brian Cox, a genuine physicist who is both charismatic and clear, a rare combination. If you missed it, watch it without delay.
After an hour stunned in front of the television, I hurriedly searched for Wonders of the Solar System online and hoped to find an interactive equivalent of the series, something educational and inspirational for science lovers on many levels. The series appears to be part of a larger BBC feature called World of Wonder. There seems to be a lot of good content to digest there, in time. Such resources are valuable alone but I hope they will soon be part of something much larger and more fluid: a science portal which will be as useful to professors like Brian Cox, as to plebs like me.
In general, scientists seem to understand and utilise social technologies to a greater degree than, say, politicians. As we would expect, they just get it. But after briefly working last year at the frontier between social media and the scientific community, my eyes were opened at how gingerly much of that community have approached this opportunity. In particular I looked at collaboration and open access in science. There are some thrilling examples of academics, especially those who were under-resourced or too niche-skilled to do what they wanted, who have used open platforms and processes to share data and ideas, and work together to achieve useful findings. A good article for further reading on this can be found here at Scientific American. But they are still the few. For instance, can you imagine big pharma companies sharing their data with each other or the public in order to solve medical issues? No, well let’s focus on the few who get it.
This open approach demonstrates scientists using tools developed by the wider public to do their jobs better. As we the public experiment with social networks, wikis, instant messaging and suchlike, we contribute to a feedback loop which aids the improvement of those tools. It is then up to visionary scientists to find academic uses for such social media. In a somewhat reverse fashion, scientists have been using amateur volunteers to do their work for them. At the heart of this, distributed computing projects use some of the available processing resources of domestic computers to perform powerful number-crunching experiments. I have always been particularly fond of SETI@home, searching for intelligent aliens from home offices of geeks all over the world.
Thus we have scientists succeeding via a social media approach, as well as a kind of democratisation of leading-edge science via non-scientists. Another important part of the movement is the growing army of garage scientists who often have neither PhDs nor labs and yet are finding fabulous new things. On occasion I hear the trumpet call of this quiet regiment but their work seems to be more disparate and uncelebrated than it deserves. Early last year, for instance, a competition for DIY biologists unveiled some unknown people who had produced new lifeforms on the sideboards of their own homes, using parts bought on eBay. The concurrence of cheaper technology and access to more information empowers all of us to become creators. As with many parts of our globalising society, the definitions and divides between Them and Us are crumbling.
I envisage a synthesis of these burgeoning fields of science. I want to see a digital portal for accessible academia through which ordinary people can learn and understand what the experts are finding, then put that knowledge to use. In turn, scientists could tap into the networked energy and intelligence of this audience to learn and do more. I look but I can’t find anywhere where this may even be starting to happen, I’d love to hear of such a resource. Most people would agree that science is important, it could literally save the world. But most people would also say that science is beyond them. When someone like Brian Cox explains physics in layman’s terms, as other heroes of mine such as Richard Feynman and David Attenborough have too, it is clear that communication is the only barrier between the diminishing us and them. The internet, I believe, can bridge the gap effectively and give us something more powerful than the sum of its parts working in isolation. What bugs me now is quite what it might look like…