Empowering Amateur Scientists to Change the World

How technology could help to engender a meaningful amateur industry with the potential to convert new ideas into empirical findings.
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A wind up spaghetti fork devised by amateur  American inventor Russell E. Oakes.  (Photo: Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

A wind up spaghetti fork devised by amateur American inventor Russell E. Oakes. (Photo: Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

By today’s standards, many of the greatest human scientists were amateurs. They didn’t have access to seven-figure grants, alumni-funded laboratories, or an endless supply of graduate students competing to assist them in their endeavors.

Yet nowadays it can be difficult to make scientific contributions without these perks. There are a limited number of jobs with ample resources for conducting research, and the many smart people who fail to get them are unlikely to have opportunities to pursue ideas and potentially make important discoveries. The growing gap between the number of newly minted Ph.D.s and the number of open professorships means that more and more brainpower is likely to be left on the sidelines. These may not be our best scientists, but they are still capable of doing good work.

Lowering barriers to entry for conducting research will enhance our ability to harvest ideas from the minds of those currently without the resources to conduct their own experiments. Can the scientific profession find ways to make this happen?

Though nothing transformative is needed to involve “amateur” minds in certain fields, the Internet will continue to make things easier through its ability to enhance communication and collaboration.

Already, things are moving in the right direction. For social scientists, the steadily growing access to large, comprehensive data sets has made it possible to conduct research on economics, public policy, political science, and education without leaving the home. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and other worker marketplaces, have made research easier by eliminating a key obstacle to finding study participants (getting a job at a university whose undergraduates are required to participate in studies). Now, participants can be recruited online and a publishable experiment can be done for $100. A psychology Ph.D. who took a job at a statistics firm finally has a means to continue conducting experiments outside of the office.

Fields like mathematics and computer science have long been fertile ground for less credentialed researchers because of their low barriers to entry. (The bare-bones nature of mathematics allows a non-tenure-track university lecturer to make an enormous contribution.) Though nothing transformative is needed to involve “amateur” minds in these fields, the Internet will continue to make things easier through its ability to enhance communication and collaboration. A code repository like Github, for example, makes it possible for many small contributions to build into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The most difficult job will be finding ways for laboratory sciences (e.g. biology and chemistry) to inspire more contributions from people without their own equipment. Lab work is very resource intensive—it’s the opposite of doing a math proof—and the appearance of Theranos in the daily news cycle has driven home how difficult it is to make any kind of lab test easy and inexpensive. Still, it is hard to believe that in the next 25 years there will not be major advances that make lab work an order of magnitude cheaper. This might make it feasible for scientists without their own labs to design an experiment and then contract with a lab to carry it out. (Uber, but for cell cultures?)

Even if a future of on-demand lab work is far away, it’s already possible to order a variety of proteins, anti-bodies, DNA primers, and other experimental pieces online. This makes it relatively easy for those who have funds and complementary supplies to conduct experiments on their own.

Though it may be getting easier for those with scientific training to make contributions, the larger issue is whether they will be motivated to do so. After all, it may rarely be worthwhile for these “amateurs” to spend all their free time on a research project. Professors get tenure for publishing papers. For somebody working at a statistical analysis firm or a start-up, the reward for publishing is marginal.

A little money could change that. Imagine a set of 1,000, $10,000 prizes for exemplary research done outside of a person’s day job. That’s probably enough to make a difference in somebody’s life or get a spouse on board with the project. And $10 million is a drop in the bucket for the giant science philanthropy foundations. According to one recent estimate, that’s only a quarter of one percent of the $4 billion in annual science funding that comes from private philanthropy. (It won’t even get you more than 20 percent of the way towards naming a building at Yale.)

Russell E. Oakes, an amateur American inventor wearing his  problem solving inventions. (Photo: Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Russell E. Oakes, an amateur American inventor wearing his problem solving inventions. (Photo: Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images)

A second issue is how scientists who do have comfortable research positions in academia or the private sector would interact with those on the fringes. There is no industry in which highly licensed professionals advocate to accept the work of those with lesser credentials, and it doesn’t seem like any field of science is itching to be the first. There are also legal and ethical issues involved in collaborating with people who may not be under the regulatory umbrella of a prestigious institution.

Even with these complications, if a person is able to publicize a legitimate finding it’s hard to imagine that nobody would become interested in a mutually beneficial collaboration. As a group, scientists believe that data should speak for itself, and ultimately it will not matter whether that data is produced by somebody with an office at a university.

Optimistic discussion of science tends to focus on poverty alleviation in the developing world and similar issues. Take all the people in India, China, and Africa living in poverty, raise their standard of living so they stay alive and get an education, and a significant number of scientists will be gained. But even in the United States we can improve our ability to convert ideas into empirical findings. The person who just misses out on the “last” prestigious job at a university or a think tank isn’t any less of a scientist than the person who gets the job, but they’ll have a comparatively minute opportunity to add to the well of human knowledge. This makes no sense. A true “amateur science” industry will be a boon to the world, and a boon to those who lay awake wishing there was a way they could test the theories floating around their head.

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