The news of an international conference on science engagement and women in science, which was meant to be held in Malta recently, made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
However, although the gathering did not take place on our shores, the topic of the day, that of engaging a more diverse audience in scientific dialogues in a more active way, is a very pertinent issue which we need to start addressing in open discussions.
Currently, most individuals funded or employed to conduct scientific experiments have been trained in traditional academic settings. This normally includes six to 10 years of university education, often followed by years of post-doctoral training. This formal academic training equips one with the tools and resources to potentially become a successful scientist. However, in no way does this mean that informally trained individuals of all ages cannot contribute to our knowledge of the world around us through science. Children as young as eight have co-authored scientific reports.
Teenagers have made important health discoveries with tangible outcomes.
These citizen scientists often provide immeasurable support to collect information for ‘big data projects’ which greatly help academic researchers. To date, citizen scientists have contributed to wonderful discoveries such as the identification of new galaxies or tracing neural processes.
However, up till now, contributions by citizen scientists has been mostly limited to data collecting or data processing, which discounts their abilities to help design study questions and experiments and interpret data and findings. Bridging the gap between academics and the public by soliciting the opinions of the community can help traditional scientists design holistic, engaging and socially relevant studies. Equally they can provide new and diverse perspectives to the interpretation of results.
If most funded and published scientific research is conducted by a sample of individuals trained to be successful in academia, then we must ask ourselves if this is potentially biasing scientific questions and interpretations.
Individuals who might not fit into an academic mould but nevertheless are curious to know the world through the scientific method face many barriers that institutionally funded individuals often take for granted, such as access to previously published scientific findings, which is either impossible or comes with a huge price tag to access (the average price to access a scientific paper is €25).
While the rise of crowd-funded science projects, open-access science initiatives and open-access publications make the scientific environment friendlier for citizen scientists, many traditional scientific practices remain out of reach for those without sufficient funds or institutional support – for example, studies involving human participants. Community-supported checks and balances remain essential for scientific projects, but perhaps they too can become unbound from traditional academic settings.
Globally, the means for collecting and analysing data are becoming more accessible to the public each day. It is high time that locally we start discussing ethical issues and build the necessary infrastructures to accommodate those conducting research outside traditional settings. With this, we will see an increase in the number of scientific discoveries made by informally trained citizen scientists of all ages and backgrounds.
Those previously unheard voices will add valuable contributions to our knowledge of the world.
Through Greenhouse Malta, a local environmental non-governmental organisation, scientists are joining up forces with interested people in the community to collect data and knowledge about our local flora and fauna. If anyone is interested to learn more and join, please feel free to get in touch by sending an e-mail on email@example.com.