Citizen science. Pseudo science or real science?

citizen "science"

I want to use my first blog to discuss a topic that has been gnawing at me -- the rise and distortion of so-called “citizen science.”  The correct, and accurate, definition of citizen science is when people without a science degree engage in scientific research, usually under the guidance of a scientist or scientific institution.  A citizen scientist can also be defined as a scientist who seeks answers to questions that will better the greater good or community, a definition that I find close to my own personal set of scientific beliefs. However, these definitions of citizen science have been perverted by a recent invasion of entrepreneurs and MBA’s more interested in the bottom line rather than actual scientific progress. Today, when we hear the phrase “citizen science,” it means we can download an app that “makes everyone a scientist.”  But I have to wonder, what kind of scientist are you when you anonymously report details of your sexual activity on the “Kinsey Reporter?” Further, it concerns me when the media begins to report advice and views of these non-scientists running a citizen science project, rather than engaging scientists who are trained to answer complex biological questions.

darwin & newton, the OGs (original gangsta’s) of citizen science

It is easy to imagine that citizen science was just recently born in a “silicon valley” style building with attractive young people playing darts while talking to mom and dad on some sort of video/sunglasses/phone hybrid. Of course the ability to instantaneously record and send data using smart phones has helped citizen science to grow and to reach new magnitudes of people, but citizen science is much, much older.  Think less Steve Jobs and more Ben Franklin. It was non-scientists like Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Ben Franklin, untrained scientific “amateurs,” whose contributions to science changed our world.  Current ecology, computer science and astronomy based citizen science programs seem more based on the earlier examples of these OG’s especially when we compare them to more biological and health care driven programs. Just as citizen science can push scientific discovery forward (and it is a wonderful way to engage and educate the public), a number of serious problems exist and it is paramount that we look at both the data and the methods of these studies critically before we accept their findings as dogma.

the problem of applying citizen science to biological studies

It is becoming increasingly evident that multi-ethnic studies must be performed in order to draw appropriate conclusions regarding aspects of disease. My laboratory has become much more sensitive to this as we have found that large differences exist between the reported genetic associations in inflammatory bowel disease performed on mostly Caucasian Europeans, and the actual expression of these loci in our Hispanic population at USC-LA County.  The average income surrounding USC in east LA is less than $20,000 per year.  So what does that mean for a citizen science microbiome project where, in order to participate, the citizen must fork over a fees ranging from $80 to $500?  We must be careful about the sorts of conclusions and statements made from such programs as they will be rich in both racial and socio-economic biases. When trained scientists conduct population studies, a considerable amount of time and effort is devoted to study design in order to minimize such biases. A team of educated and established biostatisticians, epidemiologists and biologists reconfigure their study design until it can be appropriately used to test their hypothesis, which brings me to my next point.

Citizen science is not a hypothesis-driven science

As trained scientists, we are taught to rigorously educate ourselves in a biological field, disease and discipline, and then pose an educated hypothesis or question, which can best tested to further our current knowledge on a subject.  We are adamantly taught to never let methodology drive science.  This is exactly what certain citizen science studies are doing.  Further, we are taught to be skeptical of our own data.  This is why we are trained to repeat our experiments in order to ensure that our findings are statistically accurate and not artifact.  A well-trained scientist will confirm their findings using a second or even third method.  There are several startups companies with brilliant business and marketing minds that are capitalizing on the recent interest in the microbiome.  These companies seduce venture capitalists, the media and the public under the guise of "scientific discovery," pedaling a service and selling it as sound science, even validating their customers by deeming them "amateur scientists."  So are these companies practicing good science?  Are they collecting multiple samples from the same citizen?  Are they then confirming their findings with a secondary method?  What exactly is the actual hypothesis for them, that if they market it well, you will buy it?

there is a place for citizen science, and a science for citizens

Despite these criticisms, I firmly believe there is a valid and practical place for citizen science in discovery and research. Citizen science has been a great tool in astronomy, ecological studies and computer science.  But these studies were hypothesis-based and used its citizen scientists as tools to test the hypothesis, in addition to the actual scientists, biostatisticians, epidemiologists and engineers involved with the projects.  My skepticism lies with those projects initiated by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, rather than trained scientists.  I am skeptical of projects where methodology is driving the research.  I am skeptical of projects that appear to have little input from trained experts and little or no regulation.  I am skeptical about the data we will see generated by the subset of citizen science projects involving biological processes, genetics, and disease.  With so many issues in population biases, methodologies and reproducibility, can such data really be trusted?

when conducting citizen science, please proceed with caution

We, as both scientists and as consumers, must be cautious of the influence of so called "citizen" science performed by untrained amateurs.  Incorrect or harmful data can be easily accessed by millions through the internet and social media, so it is our job, as scientists and citizens, to differentiate between those citizen science projects that provide useful data, and those that are simply more "pseudo-science," than real science.