I went to a fascinating talk by a colleague at Leeds, Dr Mark Davis, a few weeks ago. Mark works on Alternative Finance (“altfin”), which involves a shift in economic thinking away from traditional big banks (with low interest and risky investments) towards peer-to-peer and community-based lending. You can read more about Mark’s ideas in his recent Conversation article: “How alternative finance can offer a better banking future“. Mark had a lot of fascinating insights which (to a lay person like me) resonated strongly. The notion that banks are inherently risky and create the circumstances for economic collapse, and the idea that all of our money that we give to banks ends up going far away into large, complex economic systems, rather than helping closer to home. Mark also made the point that there is a parallel between the “Big Society” notion promoted by the UK Conservative Government under David Cameron, and the Alternative Finance concept that he promotes. Under the Big Society, it is assumed that everybody has a little bit of spare time here and there and that we can volunteer that time to solve social problems. This means lower investment from the government because we are (in theory) capable of taking over from public services. Some people are skeptical… Altfin, on the other hand, takes the same approach to capital: almost everybody has a small amount of capital sitting around that is doing nothing productive, and if we pool our spare capital then we can do good things with it. This got me wondering whether the same thing was true for research…
I have a list of potential projects, ideas, and datasets a mile long – well, not quite a mile, but I do have an actual list that has 31 different projects on it. Those projects are broken down into the following categories:
- “Data already collected” – these are past projects that never quite got written up, where a student lost interest, or where a new angle of attack might be possible using existing data. (n=5)
- “Data collection required” – these projects have pretty clearly defined aims and methods, but will require a degree of effort to collate the data. Sometimes this might be a literature search, sometimes some natural history, and sometimes something a bit more complex like genetic analysis in the lab. (n=10)
- “Pedagogical projects” – I’ve developed an interest in teaching enhancement and have a couple of ongoing funded projects. However, once you start thinking pedagogically, you start seeing opportunities for research everywhere. (n=2, but lots more potential)
- “Quite challenging” – I have a specific section that would be better suited to someone with specific skills. This might be a MSc student who has worked with GIS or R, someone who can do a specific bit of modelling or web design, or perhaps just someone with some lab skills in rearing and dealing with experimental animals. (n=10)
- “Esoteric” – my weirder or less biological ideas fall into this category. These aren’t necessarily harder than any of the other projects, but require some independent thought and generally lack clearly-defined objectives. (n=4)
You can see a similar list at Alex Bond’s “Languishing Projects” page on his website.
Now, we already have citizen science as a well-defined field within which great work is already being done, like the SkyNet project shown above. None of the projects on my list really fall into that category. None would benefit from large numbers of people collecting the same kinds of data, but rather are specific projects that require one person to invest a relatively small (say, 50-60 hours) among to time to complete. So here’s my proposal: the term “alternative science” is already in use by “fringe science” enthusiasts, and so I suggest the term “Community Collaborative Science“, and – because that is a bit longwinded – an immediate abbreviation to “CoCoSci“. The model goes as follows:
- Almost everybody has a small amount of time free to pursue projects in their spare time.
- Science (or research more generally) is a creative and intellectually stimulating activity.
- The general public often has a misunderstanding about how science works, and so this is an educational opportunity as well as a community service.
- There are many more good ideas than there are grants, staff, or students to pursue them.
- Free, online tools now make the collaborative collection, sharing, analysis, and communication of research extremely straightforward.
- Researchers can post ideas that require an investment of time for completion but for which they do not currently have resources, as a collaboration between themselves and a CoCoScientist.
- The CoCoScientist picks a project in their area of interest and works remotely on data collection, analysis and writing-up of the work with guidance from the lead researcher.
- The result is a potentially publishable piece of research, or pilot data for the next phase of the project.
The potential end-users are many and varied. I can imagine this being a sort of virtual science fair project for school kids, an opportunity for students to develop their research skills out of class, a great way for PhD applicants to bolster their CV (this is where the idea originated), a highly-engaging pastime for the MOOC generation, or a challenging way for elderly people to remain intellectually engaged in later years (especially for those with reduced mobility but access to computers). We could have badging, and possibly even an in-house (very lightly peer-reviewed) free-to-publish, open access journal for findings that aren’t publishable elsewhere.
I would be very surprised if there weren’t hundreds of researchers in my field alone who had half a dozen potential projects lying around waiting for an enthusiastic CoCoScientist. The only question now is: “who is going to give me loads of money to set this up…?”