Industry-funded open citizen science? Let’s try!

Last month I’ve updated my profile on LinkedIn to include the new job – the president of Open Science Foundation. This is a new organisation, founded by my employer, Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics of Polish Academy of Science. The mission is to promote and develop open science (more on that in another post), but I’d like to focus first on a single idea that I hope can change the dynamics of open science environment.

Citizen science became much more popular than it used to be. For example, Zooniverse platform has crossed 1 milion of users not so long ago. The idea that you can open the process of doing research clearly resonates with many communities, many of which are not academic. During the project “Leveraging citizen science” which I was conducting in 2012-2013, funded by Open Society Foundations, I’ve asked many specific questions on open science and on citizen science to groups like academics, science managers, school teachers, hackers, social innovators or corporate managers. Virtually all were interested, for many different (even conflicting reasons).

The problem with citizen science is that in the current model of conducting and financing such projects, their benefits are limited mainly to academics. For example, participants are not given a clear path how to “level-up” in the project if they spend enough time on it to grasp the details. In most cases, there’s no another level and no chance to be part of discourse on academic level. Another thing is that funding rarely goes for communication with participants (due to small amount of money on which these projects operate), so it often resembles crowdsourcing (do something) than collaboration (let’s work together). The slave-force attitude to participants of citizen science projects actually was clearly present in the language used by scientists from the most prominent CS institution in Europe, who referred to participants, not even as “users”, but “HPUs – human processing units”.

The focus of the grant from Open Society Foundations was the idea that maybe citizen science projects can be funded from other sources, such as corporate social responsibility programs.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a mechanism whereby a business ensures compliance with the ethical standards, norms and the spirit of the law. In many cases, CSR implementation includes actions that contribute to some social good, commonly through the involvement of the community interested in the particular goal or outcome. Often, motivation for such actions is reaching desired audience and possibly engage customers, therefore CSR activities are considered a part of firm’s marketing strategy. There are several derivative business concepts that are founded on this tactics, such as “creating shared value”, “social accounting”, “corporate social entrepreneurship”, etc.

I’ve assumed that CSR is a good match for citizen science because:

  • science has still relatively high status (true for majority of European countries)
  • citizen science projects have consistently growing number of participants all over the world (now, estimated at a few millions)
  • it’s easy to predict demographics of participants (projects of high educational value would be picked by teachers/schools; difficult game would attract mostly adults; data collection with smartphones requires participants to have smartphones first; etc.)
  • many of Citizen Science projects have an important social outcome (due to the procedures and traditions of research assessment, they are unlikely to be funded from typical sources, such as national grant agencies; therefore, social outcome is not realized)
  • there are very large number of possible areas of activities (astronomy, ecology, zoology, health, conservation, agronomy, climate research, linguistic, quantum physics, etc.), which contrasts very limited number of areas for traditional CSR activities
  • there is a possibility to create a smooth transition from basic research, to prototyping, then to consumer-driven design, realizing the promises of open innovation idea

In short, the benefits for a corporation are related to visibility, image, maybe sales, but also (and that’s maybe more important) a transfer of knowledge of how to build similar projects inside the firm.

Does it work? I have no idea. Nobody seems to have tried before. And this was the reason the Open Science Foundation was started.

Open Science ecosystem has many problems, but they are at some level all related to money. And unless money flows change, we will see no significant changes in the academic landscape. Scientific landscape will of course change, but majority of the benefits will be reaped by those outside of academia. Industry-funded open citizen science projects is the idea that has a potential to change money flows (by introducing another ones), and as such, to change both academic and non-academic science landscape. And that’s why, after many years of thinking, watching and analyzing, it’s something I’m going after right now. There’s also another important point. I’ve applied for Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship with this idea and I was turned down. One of the concerns was:

However, we are hesitant about the large scale funding of citizen science by corporations. Our concern is that the interests of the corporations will skew the focus and/or outcomes of the scientific research as it does in the traditional, closed scientific environment.

which is something I wholeheartedly agree with. The only way to avoid such a scenario, is the openness and therefore transparency. And if such an initiative does not originate from academic community, we have no leverage to enforce the required level of openness.

So, will it work? Again, I don’t know. Let’s try an experiment.