Citizen Science

I just read this post about a recent scientific discovery in the field of biochemistry.  The actual discovery involving the molecular folding mechanisms of retroviral proteases (involved in diseases, such as AIDS) is remarkable in an of itself. However, who solved this long-standing molecular mystery is perhaps even more remarkable: online gamers.

The title of the article, “Gamers solve molecular puzzle that baffled scientists,” made me laugh at first, but my amusement quickly turned to awe as I read on. Gamers of all different backgrounds have been competing on an online game called Foldit for several years now, and recently researchers at the University of Washington configured the game to assess the retroviral protease problem. It was solved in less than ten days.

The author of the article notes that this discovery proved a “giant leap for citizen science.” This concept harnesses the collective and diverse problem solving abilities of people for the good of scientific investigation. Appreciating the agility of the human mind over “sheer computer power,” scientists can enlist the general public in some of their greatest endeavors.  What an incredible picture – science doesn’t have to be a daunting field filled with lab coat-bearing, PhD-toting academics. It can be accessible to someone in their PJs playing a computer game.

Thus, the challenge of spreading scientific knowledge to the general public is extended. Not only should the lay-community be informed of scientific research, they should be invited to participate in it. With causes as great as curing AIDS at hand, this inclusive, even democratic, approach to science could be extremely powerful. Few obstacles would hold back the world’s leading scientists if they gathered the resources of the collective public mind. After all, what’s a baffled scientist got to lose?