Brand New Scientific Revolution

A scientific revolution is coming.  In the near future, new technologies and paradigms are going to arise which drastically democratize scientific research.  The range and volume of people who are able to contribute is going to expand massively, because more and more research is going to be open sourced, crowd-generated, and crowd-funded.  Goodword Alchemy seeks to contribute to and promote this movement

New Technologies Will Usher in the Future of Science

crowdfunding and crowdsourcing technologies.  

A resource like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation disseminates huge amounts of money and motivation for their challenges. What if there was a way to democratize challenges like this (not that B + M’s challenges don’t serve the people).  As in, what if there was something like kickstarter where the masses could crowdfund critical scientific research or new inventions?

To some extent, this already exists: Experiment.com answers my call pretty directly.  Quirky, is a website where people can submit invention ideas, vote on ideas, and have the best ones made.  Ideaken is a resource for crowdsourced research and development.

Instructables is a great website with user-generated project instructions.

Then of course, there already exist crowd-labor platforms like threadless, or my personal favorite: fold.it, a game where places try to fold proteins in their lowest-energy conformations.  the game has been more successful at solving protein structure than any computational method to date.

The wealth of resources like this is spreading, but it does not yet compete with regular methods of funding like government research grants, and it does not yet generate the quality of material that peer-edited journals offer.  This is changing though.  Nature publishing group recently granted open access to some of its articles.  And Tesla has open-sourced all of its patents in hopes of ushering in exactly the kind of scientific revolution that I am about to start trumping.

(By the way--and I don’t condone this at all--by far the most the most successful arena for collective, crowd-sourced scientific research has been in illegal drug research and synthesis)

Fabrication technologies will lead to Research technologies.

In this TEDtalk, Neil Gershenfeld talks about a digital revolution in fabrication technologies, and how that allows for personal fabrication.  This revolution explains another reason why scientific research is likely to radically change in the next couple of years; anyone is going to be able to to it, anywhere.  

I built a pH meter from an Arduino.  Seriously.  It worked pretty well, and it cost about 1/10th of what a professional laboratory grade pH meter would cost.  I think that the digital fabrication revolution Prof. Gershenfeld described in his TEDtalk is going to allow for micro-laboratories as well.  If we play our cards right, there could even be a sort of sharing economy for scientific research, where research firms pay to have labor-intensive experiments done in people’s houses and improvised labs.

Collaboration

The main reason that I want to promote this current in the sciences is that I think scientific research will be more democratic, more collaborative, and more efficient.

Democracy

A resource like Stack Exchange, whcih allows users to ask questions, give answers and vote on questions and answers (more votes → more visibility), is the shining example.  Not only do millions of people all over the world participate in the programming/computer-based question and answer forums, but they are starting up forums on everything from Arduino to cooking.  The first thing that is particularly remarkable about this site is that you can usually get a handful of answers to any question you get in a matter of minutes.  It is an extremely-active forum.  But more importantly, the model for moderation on the site is that people who contribute the best content--ask the best questions and give the best answers--get more visibility and have more responsibility to moderate the site.  Could Stack Exchange reputation be the future form of authority in the sciences?  Having 10K reputation and 100 gold badges could be like having a PhD in the world of open/crowdsourced science.

What I mean to highlight with my approbation of Stack Exchange is that this is the beginning of a completely democratic framework for collectively solving problems and seeking answers to big questions.  

GitHub, which allows people to store code and publish code for collaboration, will be my flagship example of a technology that allows scientific collaboration.  While it is currently limited to programming projects, the time is nigh when a technology will exist for doing the same with experiment data.

My relatively unresearched hypothesis is that most scientific research goes to waste because people spend their time working on the same projects without communicating with one another.  Why should the research I am doing on platinum catalysis in my lab be separate from the same research that you are doing in yours?  Scientists should be working in a global laboratory, sharing data and ideas with everyone who is working on the same ideas.  In my opinion, the scientific journal system needs to be completely disrupted by some internet technology in order for this collaboration to happen.  But when it does, scientific research is going to get exponentially more efficient.

Efficiency

Again, this is a pretty unresearched hypothesis (give me a break, this is one of my first blog posts on the topic), but I don’t think that pharmaceutical companies are really working to cure cancer or anything for that matter.  I think they are working to sell drugs, and I think that they are often racing against one another to make the same drugs.  I think this is a really crappy and inefficient way to cure diseases.  When critical drug research and manufacturing can go down on a global, collaborative scale, prices of drugs are going to be much cheaper, and the rate of progress is going to massively accelerate.

Cons

The pillars of Scientific Authority are going to be revised, and the organizational structures in which research is performed are going to change.  Standards for evidence and method are going to be much harder to determine.  As far as I can tell, these are the biggest and most important challenges.  Scientists may have a harder time funding very-esoteric research; it will be considered almost avant-garde.  No problem; that will be the province for traditional types of funding.