Public participation in scientific research has been steadily growing over the last few years, with ordinary people rapidly discovering new ways of taking science into their own hands. Game changing technologies and the abundance of open access information has made it easier than ever before for every one of us to investigate, monitor and record data.
In July London’s Science Museum is embracing this revolution by welcoming Beyond the Lab, an exhibition exploring the rise of DIY science.
The exhibition will be showcasing the work of nine unique innovators who are using crowd-sourced data, community lab projects and hand-made apparatus to revolutionise front-line scientific research. These ground-breaking innovators include The Mosquito Atlas Project’s Doreen Walther, who crowd-sources mosquitoes from across Germany to provide a vital monitoring service allowing prediction and planning for outbreaks, and Sara Riggare, whose wearable technology allows her to track her own Parkinson’s symptoms and customise her treatment.
We caught up with the exhibition’s project lead Louis Buckley to find out more:
Why are we suddenly seeing people taking a more active role in scientific research? Is it simply the proliferation of technology that makes it possible? Or is there a growing interest in science in general?
Technology is a key factor. Citizen science projects have a long history (bird watchers and naturalists have been collaborating for decades) but with widespread access to the internet and smartphones it is undoubtedly easier than ever before for people to work together on the collection and analysis of data. The internet also means that information is more readily available than ever before – for example for patients to learn about their conditions – and it also allows people to share plans, protocols and instructions with one another and to iterate on one another’s ideas and inventions. Finally, smartphones themselves can be used to gather data in a whole host of ways, from simply taking photographs to add-ons that allow for things like pollution sensing.
On a broader level, there is a move towards open access in science publishing. Also the maker and hacker movements of recent decades are another big influence. People want to open up and experiment with technology rather than just accepting the black boxes given to them.
Do you think that some research can be done more effectively by citizen scientists than in the lab?
The idea of crowdsourcing is important here. With many citizen science projects the quantity of data collected and analysed can be greatly increased. For example, in one of our stories, people from all across Germany are catching mosquitoes and sending them into a lab near Berlin for analysis. By harnessing the enthusiasm of thousands of citizens, scientists are studying the spread of new and potentially disease-carrying species of mosquitoes and have access to a much larger and more comprehensive dataset than they ever could have if working alone.
The other point to make is that citizens are likely to ask different questions or have very different motivations to professional researchers, and these can have direct political aims. For example, we feature the story of a community lab in Amsterdam who are trying to identify new sources of antibiotics as they claim there is insufficient professional research in this area. We also feature the stories of a type 1 diabetic and hacker who is developing his own treatment and technology because he is frustrated at what his doctors and medical companies can currently provide.
Can you give us an idea of what the exhibition will look like physically?
The exhibition features large photographic portraits of each of the DIY scientists, along with objects that they work with or have made (e.g. Tim Omer’s artificial pancreas system, mosquitoes caught by citizens across Germany, homemade lab equipment from biohackers in Amsterdam). We also have 3 short films that tell their stories, explore their motivations and show the spaces that they work in.
The design of the exhibition is inspired by an open source building material called gridbeam, which resembles a wooden meccano set. This gives it a DIY / workshop feel that evokes many of the kinds of spaces that DIY scientists work in day-to-day. Think perforations, wood, steel and a simple but sophisticated colour palette. The exhibition also has to be very robust and flexible as it’s touring to 28 other venues over the next 2 years so the design reflects this practical need.