Science 2.0: Facebook, Genomics, and New Scientists

Search_000017277657XSmallBy Amanda Biederman, Salisbury University, Salisbury, MD

In 1973, Theodosius Dobzhansky famously stated that “nothing in biology makes sense, except in light of evolution.” In 2013, a different type of evolutionary force has begun to reshape the nature of how science is conducted and analyzed.

The “Science 2.0” movement is founded upon the theory that the evolving internet provides scientists with the opportunity to share their research in ways which were not possible in the old media world. An ambiguously defined term, Science 2.0 proposes that scientific research is moving toward a collaborative form of publishing that functions by combining data to draw unified conclusions rather than placing individual laboratories in competition with one another.

The internet has the potential to change how the world views science, and research is transitioning gradually in a direction that is based on collaboration, rather than competition. Science 2.0 is more inclusive, encouraging the use of digital media and active public participation.

Historical Trends
One of the most prominent examples of Science 2.0 was the Human Genome Project, which demonstrated that massive scientific collaborations could be carried out successfully on a global scale. The HGP would not have succeeded within the cultural boundaries of the old media world, particularly against the nationalist cultural backdrop that cultivated the steeply competitive “space race” of the mid-20th century.

Thus, the HGP marks a shift in the cultural philosophy, which was in part related to the capabilities of new media. The HGP was fundamentally shaped by the development of the digital world, which evolved alongside the new scientific technologies. As the HGP progressed, the enhanced capabilities of computers and accessibility of the internet allowed collaborating organizations to rapidly share large masses of sequences, which could be analyzed efficiently and accurately via computer programming.

Digital Accessibility
In his book, Why the World is Flat, Thomas Friedman said, “I firmly believe that the next great breakthrough in bioscience could come from a 15-year-old who downloads the human genome in Egypt.”

The enormous potential impact of internet-based science research was exemplified by the work of Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old who used bioinformatics to create a new, less invasive protocol for pancreatic cancer screenings. Andraka may have been from the United States, not Egypt, but he echoed Friedman’s sentiment when he stated, “Through the internet, anything is possible.”

Andraka claims to have hardly known what a pancreas was when he began searching Google and Wikipedia to learn more about how the disease is detected. Andraka did not work in a grant-funded laboratory or even hold a college degree, but he was able to use the internet to “make” himself into a scientist.

Direct Communication
In addition to providing unlimited public access to scientific information, new media in science allows experts and non-experts to communicate directly through various forms of social media. Science experts can also use popular social media sources to reach out to the public.

One series that took advantage of this opportunity is the popular Facebook page “I f**king love science.” The page brings groundbreaking scientific findings and issues into a non-scientific social setting. The page’s creator Elise Andrew has utilized the trends of new media to educate and fascinate a general audience that likely did not log onto Facebook for a science lesson.

A similar project was undertaken by Hank Green, a 33-year old who became famous on YouTube and now manages a channel called SciShow, discussing topics such as the environment, epigenetics, mind reading and the end of the world. By bringing relevant, engaging scientific information into a casual atmosphere, Green is able to educate his wide base of internet fans.

Green may not be a scientist by traditional definition, but he is undoubtedly an extremely successful science educator. Green’s channel had more than one million followers as of November 2013. As a comparison, the official National Science Foundation channel had just over 5,000 followers, and the NASA Goddard channel had just under 172,000 followers at that point. Evidently, being able to adapt to new media is more important than traditional authority, at least in terms of audience impact.

An Active Public
The internet has cultivated citizen science projects in a variety of scientific fields, so non-specialists have the ability to add to larger projects. Citizen science projects can take on a variety of forms: participants can send photographs, analyze data, try working through a computer program, or collect samples from the environment. Citizen science projects allow the audience to take on the roles of “prosumers,” so they can play an active role in larger projects.

A protein structure game called Foldit was instantly successful – and actually solved a question that had puzzled experts for years. Evidence has actually shown that human users can come up with solutions more efficiently than the computer alone. Citizen science projects allow the entire global community – both experts and non-experts – to collaborate and answer relevant scientific questions. These games converge the fields of simple, puzzle-based games no more difficult than Candy Crush with modern, cutting edge genetic research, bringing molecular biology outside the laboratory and into the new media world.

The Future of Modern Science
Science 2.0 predicts a future where science is collaborative and inclusive. Its overall goal would be not to compete, but to obtain and synergize as much information as possible to construct a clearer view of how the world and universe function. This is, admittedly, a very optimistic view of a discipline that is founded upon competition and personal successes. Yet science is gradually becoming more open, and the internet is helping to redefine what it means to “own” data or even to be a scientist. Although there are concerns about how collaboration could affect the quality of published science, there is evidence that with right structure, the movement will encourage collaborative public thinking and thus advance the discipline as a whole. The internet has the potential to revolutionize science; the only question that remains is whether we are prepared to take on the challenge.

Read how interdisciplinary degrees are changing scientific career paths in Substrate post, “Scientists Without Borders.” 

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