Can we crowdsource scientific research?

Science may seem like a members-only club for experts and academics, but recent efforts are opening the field to anyone who’s interested. Darlene Cavalier, founder of the science research crowdsourcing site, joins us to discuss.


Science may seem like a members-only club for experts and academics, but recent efforts are opening the field to anyone who's interested.

Here to tell us how ordinary citizens are helping find extraordinary data is Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a crowdsourcing site for science research.

Now, some people have heard of Kickstarter and trying to get money from strangers to fund your idea, but SciStarter's not asking for money, more time.

Time and talent.

Exactly right.

We have over 1,000 opportunities in SciStarter.

These are where researchers or anybody who has a curiosity and wants to work with crowd to gather evidence can post their opportunities on SciStarter, and then we help people find those opportunities to donate their time and talent.

I don't have a science background.

What kind of things can I help in?

It is unbelievably broad.

If you're a bird-watcher, there are a ton of projects for you to get involved in.

If you're a concerned citizen, I mean, the Flint, Michigan, episode is a great example of how a researcher from Virginia Tech University provided funding and technical expertise but needed people in Flint, Michigan, to provide data to him, and that is basically a crowdsourcing project.

We have online crowdsourcing projects, where you can do this from the comfort of your home.

2:00 A.M. in the morning -- if you feel like clicking through some images, you can help scientists identify neural networks of a brain.

And fun things, too -- just getting to know the personality of your dog and at the same time contributing to canine research, too.

What are humans able to do that now you'd think computers can solve that.

Why are humans necessary?

Well, first of all, identifying anomalies is one major thing.

So we have a new project that's forthcoming called WeCureALZ.

And so when I say 'we,' SciStarter helps make the connection, but it's not our project.

And so this is Pietro Michelucci, who is a cognitive scientist who's looking to hopefully cure Alzheimer's someday.

He's combining two platforms that are very complicated, and yet I'm gonna try to boil this down.

One is called Stardust@Home.

So this is a popular citizen science project that takes a million images of stardust that was collected when a satellite flew through the tail of a comet.

So microscopic stardust.

So it's an online virtual microscope, so people can sort through these images, and they know what to look for.

They're instructed on what to look for there.

Combines that with a platform called EyeWire, which is a very popular citizen science project, another online citizen science project, that uses the power of the crowds to start to identify the neural network of the brain.

So Dr. Michelucci is putting these two platforms together to help people start to identify blood flow in vessels and where it's being basically clogged and to look at microscopic evidence of where those clogs are happening as a first step.

That can't be done with computers right now.

And there's even a project that was looking at basically the cure to cancer.


This is from Cancer Research UK, and they actually have a number of projects along those lines, but one was done as a test at first.

It was called Cell Slider.

So for the testing part of it, they took some slides of tumor images, and they put them online with clear instructions to help people understand what a cancerous tumor looks like, what a healthy cell looks like.

And this was organized through another popular platform called Zooniverse.

So people were able to click through images to look for healthy and unhealthy images.

So what those researchers were doing was really trying to get a sense of, 'Can people be accurate about this?

Can we really put this out to the crowds?'

They were kind of skeptical.

They wanted to see two things -- a level of accuracy and the amount of time saved.

Why not just have their professional researchers continue to do this?

So for that particular project, they were able to quantify every bit as accurate as their professional researchers and half the time.

And because of that, they've invested some time and money in their own platform to roll out much larger crowdsourcing efforts.

The example I used earlier with WeCureALZ, they expect that to cut down by -- in the hundreds.

So really speed this rapid pace of discovery.

But then we're seeing more and more projects where the definition of who the expert is can be called into question.

The expert could be somebody who who is local, who is very knowledgeable about their own situation.

Take a fisherman or a farmer.

They probably know their own situation better than anybody and can start to notice changes in climate.

Changes in the fact that their fish aren't showing up as they had before or they look deformed or something's different here.

More and more projects are being initiated by individuals who are curious and who need help from the public to start to gather evidence.

What starts to happen, then, is, in order for that evidence to be taken seriously, legitimized, and used by people who are in positions to make decisions, we start to look at other barriers to entry for people, which include, you know, good scientific method that's described articulately to people so they feel their time is being valued if they get involved in this project so that they can begin to understand the outcomes of, 'What happens with my data if I share this?'

And I can't say that always happens with the professional research projects, too.

Sometimes we wonder, 'What happens with that data?'

And then, also, access to tools -- tools that give valid data that can be calibrated and that are accessible to people.

This is where we start to see the 'do it yourself' movement.

An exciting, new, I would say emerging area of citizen science is this mashing up of the maker movement and the citizen scientists coming together to kind of take down some of those barriers that we've seen before.

Where do you see citizen science going?

5 years from now, 10 years from now, if we have this conversation, is it gonna be some sort of large-scale breakthrough that was brought on because of citizen science?

No doubt.

And, again, we've already started seeing those large-scale breakthroughs that are brought on because of citizen science.

What I would like to see happen, and this is something we're starting to test out with Arizona State University in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, is the ability to start to help formalize -- if the volunteers are interested in this path, how do we start helping to give them formal credit for what they're doing?


They're advancing areas of research for which, by and large, the researchers involved in that are, you know, rising through the ranks of their profession.

They're getting their papers published, and they're getting their promotions, and they're heading towards their tenured position, and that's all well and good.

And we're solving problems in the interim, which is very exciting.

But what about these people?

When you asked me about the demographics... When we meet people involved in these projects, I'm surprised at how many did not go to college.

When I bring up that issue, and the example of the farmer and the fisherman -- they may not have formal education.

For whatever reason, they chose a different path.

Or they may be somebody like me.

I didn't study science in college.

I was a late bloomer to my interest in science.

And so when I came back up and said, 'I like science.

I'd like to connect in a more meaningful way,' I couldn't find the opportunities.

I didn't know where the on-ramps were.

That's why I started SciStarter, to say, 'Hey, everybody, science degree or not, come.

There's something for you, and you're very much valued, and you're really needed for these projects.

Darlene Cavalier of SciStarter.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you for having me.