How diversity in science can improve communities


It used to be that to be a scientist, you had to hold a degree and be part of an existing power structure, such as a research university or an institution that receives government funding. That traditional power structure, however, can be stifling for innovation that falls outside traditional science.

Increasingly technology is allowing anyone, regardless of income or background, to be a scientist.

On Thursday, Ashoka, a nonprofit that aims to support social entrepreneurs, convened a panel at its Future Forum conference in D.C., of people working not only to bring science to diverse communities, but to encourage scientists to take their research “from the ivory tower to the street.”

The way science has been conducted has remained relatively constant since World War II, says John Wilbanks, a moderator at Ashoka and an executive at Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit biomedical research organization that works to open data. The government gives research institutions money and the institutions conduct science, determining how, where, when, and, importantly, if, the information is distributed.

Science, Wilbanks points out, used to be regulated by the elite. But now the democratization of tech is letting people operate outside of those traditional power structures.

To tap into the expertise of local communities after the 2010 BP oil spill in Louisiana, Public Lab created DIY tools for environmental monitoring. They sell spectrometer kits, which used to cost thousands of dollars, for pocket change, and provide step-by-step instructions for how to build the tools. The company, founded by Shannon Dosemagen, works to give local communities access to the tools and training to conduct their own science research and hold people in positions of power accountable.

“There’s a lot of power in that,” says Jason Bobe, who runs the Sharing Lab at the Icahn Institute, which aims to allow people who may not be professionally trained scientists to participate in biomedical research and innovation.

Opening data and giving a diverse group of people the ability to utilize data can be a bit like opening a can of worms. Different solutions emerge, says Bobe.

Researchers also have to overcome prejudices and a mindset that they are the “solution finder,” Dosemagen says. They need to see themselves as working alongside a community to spark change.

“The participatory element is really important,” Bobe says. “Think about your research subjects as co-investigators.”

There are signs of progress.

Bobe pointed out that scientists are starting to write community-developed labs into grants, recognizing that people, even if they aren’t professional scientists, offer valuable insight into potential solutions to a problem when then they live in the community being studied.

Increasingly, community science groups are pitching directly to wealthy philanthropists, says Al Hammond, a senior entrepreneur with Ashoka. Those philanthropists are paying attention and funding things the government may not consider important, which helps to distribute power.

Mozilla, for example, relies on grants and donations from the Sloan Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, says Kaitlin Thaney, the company’s director of  science program.

“The government isn’t always the right decision-maker,” Hammond pointed out.

Public Lab recently received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, which comes with far more restrictions. Traditional funding, whether from the government or other grant-making institutions, encourage incremental advances because they are burdened by red tape.

Crowdfunding is also a viable revenue source that didn’t exist until recently. Dosemagen’s group has crowdfunded their budget for years, which helps avoid bureaucratic nightmares.

“Change is totally possible,” Bobe says.

Fusion is a media partner of the Ashoka Future Forum.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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