Science | Crowdfunding: science by popular demand

India this month participated in one of the most important races and feats of human ingenuity. The race to Mars is well under way and whist many acknowledge the noble intent of the mission, the search for potential life forms, living or deceased, should a nation of devastating poverty be sending £45 million in metal and fuel to a barren rock? India has parted with £600 million to its public space programme, after the UK donated £280 million in aid to the nation in 2012. Is this an appropriate way of spending money in a nation still struggling with religious turmoil, endemic rape and malnutrition?

The Indian government is defending the £1 billion agency for its innovation, provision of high technological jobs and igniting the minds of India. Whist we in the UK have little say in the distribution of the aid we have donated to the subcontinent, should we question our own pie charts as to who and where all the research grants go?

Technology has saturated us with data; research projects may now run into the terabytes of data a day. Genomic sequencing and space scanning require enormous provisions to capture each bit and pixel of biology and the visible universe. Whilst robotics and computing may be more receptive than our primitive senses, our software to process, analysis and extrapolate from the data pool still remains light-years ahead of silicon chips.

Scientific crowdsourcing is the utilisation of the masses to analyse copious amounts of data, to locate novel discoveries and produce relationships otherwise impossible to accomplish by a few mortal students. Chris Lintott, of The Sky at Night, inspired by NASA’s use of public participation in data obtained from missions, set up Galaxy Zoo, an online crowdsourcing project, drawing amateur astronomers to categorise the shape of over a million galaxies. Many of the images had never been viewed by the human eye before. The project, free and accessible, put the public at the cutting edge of scientific research and able to contribute to the ecumenical cartography of the universe. So popular was the placement of the public in the astro-domain that at the projects peak 70,000 galaxies an hour were catalogued. With the public’s engagement and success in research, should the experiment be pushed further to allow a more democratic system to partition and determine the resources devoted to particular schemes.

Crowdfunding; citizens having a direct input into the balance of resources set to one discipline over the other. Concurrently science and society run asymmetric to one another. Technologies advancement has outpaced societies grip on the fundamentals of science. Occult, peculiar and numinous and particles, techniques and equipment have escaped the comprehension of the layman. Though empiricism and the pursuit of truth is no democratic debate or for the consensus to decide, the utilisation of a plebiscite may draw attention and enthusiasm to such studies and bring the populous up to stage. Conversely, implications and applications of pure research are often shrouded through overwhelming particle accelerators and intricate nucleotide cropping. The public may naturally avoid long term projects of wayward result and endow short term, economically applied science. Other concerns are raised at the ignorance of public decision causing ill understood or unpopular science to halt. The counter argument being the knowledge base of an ornithologist on the topic of nanotechnology may well be equal to that of the laymen.

India’s space program is heading for one of two trajectories. Is the space programme, its billion dollar budget and unforeseeable economic rewards just too far from societies stratosphere, their engagement and interest? Should the funding of cutting edge science be quashed and rebuked by those that have donated so much in economic aid? Or will such a programme engage the public, draw the crowd and form a scientifically literate and enrolled society?


Henry Beach

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