Citizen Science and Digital Biology: ScienceOnline 2010

Is there a place for citizen scientists in the world of digital biology?

Many of the citizen science projects that I've been reading about have a common structure. There's a University lab at the top, outreach educators in the middle, and a group of citizens out in the field collecting data.

After the data are collected, they end up in a database somewhere and the University researchers analyze them and write papers. At least that's my impression so far.

It seems to me, that with all kinds of databases out there, on-line, there should be plenty of opportunity for both citizens and student groups to participate in analyzing the data.

But do they?

Cross posted at Discovering Biology in a Digital World

In the world of genomics, high throughput DNA sequencing, and structural biology, data generation far exceeds the ability for analysis.

To paraphrase an editorial in Nature Biotechnology: more data will be collected this year, than in the entire past decade.

And, people (well, writers anyway) were already saying we were deluged by data.

Is there a place for citizen scientists to help analyze a bit of it?

I think so. But I haven't been able to find very many.

So far, the most promising projects are pretty much limited to University researchers and students. That's not bad, but the opportunities for involvement are pretty restricted. For example, JGI has this wonderful project where classes adopt bacterial genomes and help with annotation. I think that's great and this effort has even been helpful in generating at least one wonderful paper.

But the Adopt a Genome program isn't open access.

Consequently, there are about sixty genomes available and less than a third have been adopted.

I think this project would be even more successful with community participation. Even the number of student groups could be increased by loosening the reins a bit. Right now, student groups are vetted pretty carefully before they can adopt. In order for a class to work on a genome, the instructor has to attend a workshop that's only offered once a year at the JGI. This is probably a great experience for the instructors who can attend, but many instructors can't take the time or don't have the funds to travel, and the number of slots is limited. True, annotation isn't trivial, but if we can teach computers to do it, it seems like the instructions to humans could be made available online.

If an instructor or interested citizens (like the DIY bio group) could attend the workshop in a virtual sense through on-line tutorials or videos and "get certified" as annotators, perhaps all the genomes could get adopted or actively annotated.

C'mon JGI, why not open the door and use on-line education tools to increase the number of participants and get more citizen and student involvement?


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By kalvindale (not verified) on 14 Nov 2010 #permalink

This has been intermittently depressing me for a long time. I took a tech major, and even though I spend my free time reading up on science, the only opportunities to contribute seem to be either middle/highschool or PhD level.

The project finder does look promising though.

Maybe someday soon there'll be an organized demand for educated adult laymen. It's sad to think I'm only as useful as an 8th grader.

Otherwise I guess it'd take self-teaching from sites like MIT's OpenCourseWare, to get all the way to par with the docs, and publishing in journals oneself. A guide to that sort of intellectual autonomy would be handy, too.

There is another mindset that's worrisome: those who would like to do away the accredited oversight that stands in the way of their woo/denialism. Cranks are problematic for the reputation (but not the practice) of citizen/amateur science.