Category: Society

Can citizen science empower disenfranchised communities

Early in 2015, a group calling itself the Nappy Science Gang hit the parenting scene in the U.K. It was made up of moms and dads who used cloth nappies – or diapers – with their kids, and wanted to know the best ways to keep them clean and safe. The Nappy Science Gang is part of a growing global movement toward citizens getting involved in science. Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for ordinary people to collect data for researchers, and sometimes help analyze it. Platforms such as Zooniverse, Scientific American and SciStarter are all helping citizens (anyone who’s part of a community, in this context) connect with scientists and get involved with the process of scientific discovery. Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress. Yet in many of these citizen science projects, researchers remain firmly in the driver’s seat – asking the questions, setting the agenda and making sense of the data. They’re big on engagement, maybe not so much on empowerment – especially when it comes to issues that directly affect participants’ lives. Citizens setting the science agenda This is where the Nappy Science Gang is different. It represents an emerging trend where citizens partner with experts to do the science that’s useful to them and their community, not just someone else. Partnerships like this can have wide-reaching consequences. One question asked by the Nappy Science Gang, for instance, was: why are biological detergents not advisable for washing cloth diapers? Despite this being the advice given by organizations like the U.K. National Health Service, the group’s research findings didn’t seem to support it. So they asked one of their expert advisers for help. Unable to explain things,

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Gene Drives

Gene editing and gene drives are rapidly emerging as the disruptive technologies du jour.  But what are they, what can they do, and why should you care? Just last week, research was published that took us a step closer to being able to re-engineer whole species by driving specific genes through successive generations   – the species in this case was mosquitoes, and the trait to be engineered was the ability to host malaria-causing parasites. And this week, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, together with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.’s Royal Society, are co-hosting an international summit on gene editing in humans – and especially the ethical and governance issues emerging capabilities raise. To help make sense of gene drives and the underlying gene editing technologies, there’s a new explainer video on Risk Bites.  Watch the video here, or read the transcript below. Transcript Imagine we could stop mosquitoes from carrying malaria. For good.  Or prevent ticks from transmitting lyme disease. Or eliminate the billions of dollars of damage caused by bugs to our food supplies each year. Gene drives are a radical new approach to genetic engineering that could help us achieve these goals, and a whole lot more.  Yet, as you might expect, the technology isn’t risk-free. Gene drives are designed to eliminate unwanted traits in insects and other animals.  They work by pushing out genetic modifications through whole species, until eventually, every critter has been changed into something we’ve intentionally engineered. The idea isn’t especially new.  But it’s only very recently that advanced gene editing techniques have made human-designed gene drives possible.  And at the heart of this revolution is a new technique for precision-editing genes – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or if you’re not into brain-bending tongue twisters, CRISPR for short.

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A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap.  She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar. The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep. Yes, this is Doha;

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This morning I sat down with my 14 year old son and asked him what area of science caught his interest especially.  He answered “the future of space exploration”. We carried out a search on the Web of Science for “future + space + exploration”, and the fifth article returned was “Comparing future options for human space flight” by Sherwood Brent (Acta Astronautica 69 346-353, 2011).  We downloaded the article and he read it.  When asked, he said the paper was understandable and interesting – he was glad that he’d read it, and wanted to know where he could read more stuff like this. There’s a myth that only people who have ready access to peer review papers have any real need or desire to read them, and it’s a pernicious myth. George Monbiot stirred up the debate on access to scientific publications recently in his Guardian piece “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“.  In response, Kent Anderson – a long-time publisher and editor of scientific journals – set up this straw scenario, using it to justify limited access to journal publications:

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Following on from my post a couple of days ago on teens and social media, I wanted to post this highly eloquent response to some of Susan Greenfield’s remarks about social media and society.  It’s from Francisco of the YouTube collab channel Fellowship of the Ning, and directly addresses the 2009 Guardian article “Facebook and Bebo risk ‘infantilising’ the human mind”, in which Greenfield expresses her concerns. The video adds to the series of videos I posted on August 24 from other members of this on-line group. Francisco responds to seven points made by Susan Greenfield in the article: The allure of immediacy (link here) Similarities between social media use and drug addiction (link here) Social media and declining literacy (link here) Erosion of identity (link here) Immersion in a 2-dimensional world (link here) The risk of loss of empathy (link here) Social media and mind-change (link here) Some of my favorite quotes: “If you understand the true nature of stories, you know that books are nothing but one of the many ways of telling them” “Social media … humanizes us” “Imagine if man’s mind could change because of social media.  Imagine if it could broaden our horizons, and change the parameters we move in. Imagine if it could lead to progress. I know – that’s a scary thought!”

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Is social media messing up today’s teens?  Adults, it seems, love to pontificate on the benefits and ills of emerging internet-based communication platforms  on young people. But how often do they bother to listen to the teenagers they claim to be concerned about? Well, this is their chance. Over this past week, the members of my daughter’s YouTube collaboration channel Fellowship of the Ning have recorded their thoughts on camera, and provided a candid and personal perspective of how social media is affecting their lives.

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Dan Sarewitz has a rather provocative commentary in Nature this morning, where he suggests that proposals to increase basic research may be good politics, but questionable policy. The headline alone is probably enough to get some science-advocates’ blood boiling, whether they go on to read the piece or not: “Double trouble? To throw cash at science is a mistake” does nothing if not throw down the gauntlet to an already sensitive science community. Beyond the provoking banner, Dan raises  serious if uncomfortable issues – there must come a point where investment in science is balanced within a much broader social context, and the consequences of not allocating funds elsewhere are weighed against the benefits of supporting research – especially blue skies research.  But reading the piece reminded me of an associated debate which seems to get rather less air time – the personal responsibility that comes with government research funding. It’s an inescapable fact that, for every dollar, pound or Euro that governments invest in research, someone, somewhere is getting less money to spend on what they think is important.  In some cases, re-allocations may have minor social consequences.  In others, reduced spending elsewhere in favor of science may be profound impacts on the lives of individuals – especially those at the margins of society.

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Complete the following: Setting: A well known and sometimes off-beat technology commentator explores new breakthroughs on a popular TV science and tech show. Story: Spiders’ silk is incredibly strong, but in short supply (ever tried harvesting silk from a spider?). So why not take the gene responsible for making spider silk, and splice it into a goat? The result: goats that produce milk laced with spider silk-protein. All you have to do then is extract the protein from the milk and spin it into silk and hey presto – a plentiful supply of a super-strong, incredibly versatile, “natural” material. How should the story end? There’s a serious point to this question, which I’ll come back to later.  For now though, I’m intrigued as to how people think the story should conclude – remembering this is a TV show for a broad audience. The spider/goat stuff is real btw – check out this snippet from the US National Science Foundation. [Update 11/2/10 – the follow-up blog to this piece has just been posted]

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According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) plans to form a new interagency group on emerging technologies, including nanotechnology and synthetic biology.  The announcement was make by Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at OSTP, at a government-organized workshop on Risk Management Methods and Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications of Nanotechnology held last week.  The AAAS policy alert (not available on the web yet available here) noted that the group is intended to provide research funding agencies and regulatory agencies an opportunity to discuss emerging policy issues.

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A year or so ago, there was a challenge circling round the blogging community to write on a subject you know nothing about.  It’s a little late, but I think this blog quite possibly qualifies as my contribution. Earlier this year I rather foolishly agreed to rise to a challenge set me on the 2020 Science Facebook page by Jasmine Andrews: Write a blog about science and sexuality. Now I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I know nothing about sex.  But lets be honest here: When it comes to the finer points of sex and sexuality, I’m male, I’ve lived a sheltered life, and I’m a scientist! Actually, I don’t think the first and last points count, but you get the idea. Nevertheless, a promise is a promise, so without further ado, here is the first (and quite possibly the last) 2020 Science blog on sex, sexuality and science.

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites


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