COVID-19 has been a wakeup call for people to become more scientifically literate. It’s not uncommon to hear people casually talk about spike proteins and vaccine efficacy over drinks or lunch. For all its devastating consequences, the pandemic has also opened up new opportunities for spreading scientific research across the globe and conscripting the public into these endeavors. But these are opportunities we are quickly squandering, preventing the development of new world-class scientists who could help guard us against current and future public health crises.
Citizen science games that bring scientists and ordinary people together online to collaborate on engaging research are emerging as a huge tool that could make scientific studies a regular part of our communities. But to realize this potential, aid agencies and foundations must be willing to re-envision science as a form of diplomatic assistance.
Philanthropy and foreign aid are meant to transform socioeconomic-political systems, not just provide charity to those in need. In this vein, citizen science games are creating a new model for how to conduct scientific research while also promoting open science, where advancements are freely shared.
One of the most popular examples of a citizen science game is EyeWire, in which players three-dimensionally map branches of an individual neuron from two-dimensional images of real brain data. Scientists have used the work from this game to run actual research investigations into how the retina works and how its neurons process visual information.
All too often, the existing path for citizens from low-income countries to perform scientific inquiry is to emigrate to richer nations. Thanks to the internet, video games have the potential to encourage budding scientists around the world while they remain at home. Researchers can break down scientific problems into video game challenges that individuals without any prior scientific training can play. Thousands of players can offer up solutions that are often much better than those generated by the most cutting-edge artificial intelligence. The greater the number of players, the more likely we are to solve scientific questions like how atoms move, correct for errors in quantum computing systems, and find breakthroughs for new vaccines and medicines. Much of this work is bolstered by the diverse backgrounds of players, as different nationalities, cultures, and professional backgrounds can bring different assumptions, approaches and ideas to problems.
Take Eterna, an open science game you can play on desktop or as a mobile app. Players design strands of RNA from scratch. The aim is to solve a puzzle that represents a target shape that would allow the RNA to perform a specific function. In the real world, scientists test dozens of these proposed puzzle solutions in the lab to see if they work. They can harness the collective experience of tens of thousands of players to better understand how the construction of RNA molecules determines how they fold three-dimensionally.
This is crucial to investigating a whole field of questions in biochemistry, including some central to our current pandemic. Eterna’s makers recently launched the OpenVaccine challenge as a specific way to use the insights from the game to help drug makers create refrigerator-stable mRNA vaccines. The work by Eterna players has led to new insights in how to make mRNA vaccines that can be distributed across the world before they degrade.
These online games also act as an alternative to the traditional scientific education pipeline. In the process of teaching players a specific scientific field from scratch, citizen science games can highlight the skills and aptitude of the rare one-in-a-thousand genius who could give those at the top science and engineering companies a run for their money. Many of these players might hail from low-income countries or communities with few opportunities for a rigorous scientific education. The influx of diverse new talent could, for example, boost productivity at pharmaceutical companies, which have seen a significant drop in the development of groundbreaking non-COVID therapeutics in recent years.
Greater diversity among players would also help researchers determine which challenges to tackle. Health industries like pharma have generally ignored major diseases in countries unable to pay for novel drugs or rare diseases afflicting few individuals. There are over 400 million people worldwide (25 million in the U.S.) who suffer from one of over 5,000 so-called “orphan diseases.”
And most of all, these games can already take advantage of the kinds of initiatives traditional science organizations have already carved out. The Rockefeller Foundation offered financial prizes to challenge members of the for-profit platform InnoCentive to discover solutions to scientific and health problems faced by individuals in developing nations. The European Commission funded Ground Truth 2.0, a project that worked on flora and fauna and water issues in two African demonstration cases. Both initiatives took the important step of involving local communities and actually asking people on the ground what challenges they wanted new research to address. There’s no reason citizen science games couldn’t do the same thing—perhaps better.
Citizen science games aren’t without challenges. Beyond finding investment, these games open up a brand new model of scientific inquiry that we’re not completely used to. It can be labor intensive for scientists to pore through the data these games yield—akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Not all fields of science are easily transformed into citizen science games. Most citizen science programs have limited participation by volunteers to data collection and verification, like for bird migration, weather patterns and pollution levels. It would take some leaps of creativity (and of course, money) to make a stimulating game around these kinds of investigations.
But still, we need to move beyond the current paradigm where ordinary people’s participation in science is basically just to act as volunteers in drug and vaccine trials. We need more people’s help to make discoveries, generate new insights, and offer new perspectives on how to apply scientific findings more equitably to the rest of the world.
Citizen science games are an untapped wellspring for these benefits. They are harder to defeat through corruption than many forms of foreign aid. They can enhance education. They can seed domestic science programs. And they can help us discover exceptional talent. Let’s take care not to overlook potential world-class scientists or to deprive the world of their potential breakthroughs.