Citizen-Scientist Joseph Jackson and the New Open Source

h+ Summit

As I write this, we are a few weeks away from the H+ Summit: Rise of the Citizen-Scientist, to be held at Harvard University Science Hall, June 12-13, 2010, Cambridge, Massachusetts (just north of Boston). I’m chairing the event, which is organized with the Harvard Future Society.

One of the speakers is Joseph Jackson, a graduate of Harvard and an emerging leader in the open science movement. Part of the fun of spending time with smart people is being able to give them credit for life-changing ideas and insights. Joseph Jackson was the man who set my mind on fire with the concept of the Citizen-Scientist. As soon as Joseph explained what he meant by Citizen-Scientist, I couldn’t stop thinking about how important it was to have a conference that combined H+, advanced technology, transhumanism, and scientific movements that could shift science from an occupation of hundreds of thousands of practitioners into one with hundreds of millions, all equipped with state of the art yet inexpensive equipment. Here’s Joseph Jackson, in his own words, about why Citizen-Science matters. Consider this a sneak preview of what’s in store for those who attend the H+ Summit: Rise of the Citizen-Scientist. See you there!

h+: What is a Citizen-Scientist?

Joseph Jackson: A Citizen-Scientist is anyone who uses the scientific method to investigate themselves or their environment to answer a particular question or satisfy their curiosity. Several exemplary historical citizen scientists come to mind. Thomas Jefferson is the archetype of the gentleman scholar. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals when he got tired of switching between two pairs of glasses and of course, famously flew a kite in a lightning storm to discover the principles of electricity. Edward Jenner discovered inoculation and performed the first vaccination against smallpox. Jenner’s case is especially important as it highlights the power of user innovation. As a country doctor, Jenner observed that milkmaids who interacted with cattle infected with cowpox did not contract smallpox. He then transferred pus from a milkmaid to a young boy, completely protecting him from smallpox. The medical establishment was reluctant to accept the findings of a “lowly” country physician, but eventually Jenner prevailed. Thomas Edison also partially fits the descriptor of Citizen-Scientist but, because he was, frankly, a bit of a bastard (see his feud with Tesla and other abusive monopolistic industrial practices), his example is not one we want to encourage under the new Open Science paradigm. Most importantly, in the 21st century, for the first time, the plummeting costs of technology enable anyone to be a citizen scientist, whereas the classic citizen scientists of the first enlightenment were all wealthy men who had the time and resources to conduct experiments.

h+: What did you study at Harvard, and how do you feel about going back as a speaker and the person who inspired the theme?

JJ: At Harvard I studied political philosophy, or “political science,” in the mistaken belief that government and politics were one of mankind’s most important tools for solving collective action problems. I’ve since become an anarchist! In 2002-2003, I took a bioethics seminar with Michael Sandel, who was then serving on President Bush’s hyper-conservative Council of Bioethics alongside chairman and arch-Luddite, Leon Kass. I had not discovered transhumanism yet, but found myself as the lone champion of H+ values in a class of shockingly close-minded fellow students. The course culminated in a visit to Washington to observe the council, where I confronted Dr. Kass about some of his positions, to no avail. This experience prompted me to seek out transhumanism.

My time at Harvard was a profoundly unpleasant ordeal, as I was largely isolated from other technoprogressive thinkers. Things came to a head when a classmate committed suicide shortly before graduation. Such an event, while a tragedy, was by no means an anomaly. There is, on average, one a year. Already battling a serious depression, I then experienced an acute crisis of meaning. I felt that I had wasted my time and that everything I had believed in was false. How could an institution that, at the time, had a $20 billion endowment, create such a “misery factory?” What should have been a secure environment for creative people to develop and flourish, in some instances became instead a cutthroat, vicious, nasty place, often churning out stunted, warped, neurotic, withered, dysfunctional, anti-social robots. Rather than encouraging graduates to take risks, innovate, and found bold new initiatives, most students were herded into a few limited career tracks… they were going to join investment banks, consulting groups, and law firms… all institutions implicated in the mega-meltdown of 2008. While MIT and Stanford are arguably more H+ friendly and have a better culture of entrepreneurship, our higher education system, in general, must adapt to remain relevant.

At the six-year anniversary of my graduation, I am pleased to return to Harvard to celebrate H+ values and help chart a course for Citizen-Science, a participatory paradigm that speaks to the concerns of all who are currently dissatisfied with our prevailing system.

Joseph Jackson - Image Courtesy of: hplussummit.comh+: What are you working on?

JJ: I currently pursue three related projects. I am CEO of Lava-Amp, a company I co-founded with Venezuelan computational biologist Guido Nunez to develop extremely low-cost DNA amplification technology. PCR, which Lava-Amp performs, is the fundamental technique of molecular biology. Our device brings the cost of the hardware down from thousands of dollars, to hundreds, enabling portable DNA testing in the field, and also providing an affordable system for garage bio-hackers and amateur biologists learning the basics. See http://lavaamp.wordpress.com/

I am also convening the first Open Science Summit, July 29-31st at Berkeley. Finally, I am co-founder of BioCurious the first Bay Area community lab for citizen science and “biohacking.” The DIY biology movement has been gaining ground for the last two years with many groups meeting informally. However, we still lack infrastructure and access to equipment that is beyond the budget of a garage hobbyist. To remedy this, and also assuage some of the concerns with garage biohacking, we’ve pooled resources and gathered a group of Bay Area activists to found a lab for non-institutional science. Here, members can learn essential skills in a safe setting and work on projects together, instead of toiling at home and having to ask questions online… there is a lot to be said for in-person trouble-shooting.

h+: Tell me about your open science conference?

JJ: The Open Science Summit calls for a renegotiation of the social contract for science. Please see my blog post, “Enlightenment 2.0,” at the conference site, for the full vision. Science is the tool of tools, the method by which humanity improves its condition. However, few are thinking holistically about how to optimize the functioning of our system. Over two and a half days, we will gather stakeholders seeking to liberate our scientific and technological commons and enable a new era of decentralized, distributed innovation to solve our greatest challenges. We’ll consider the following urgent policy questions: the future of biology including DIY biotech, personal genomics, and synthetic biology (and its attendant biosecurity concerns); gene patents after the Myriad decision; the future of peer review and scientific reputation; open data, open access publishing; novel funding mechanisms for research (crowdsourced microfinance to harness collective intelligence and allow the public to directly support projects rather than route everything through a bureaucratic grant system)… and many more. The solutions we’ll map combine to enable a radically more efficient, collaborative, and transparent science/innovation system so that we can have a speedy, safe, and successful Singularity.

h+: What do Citizen-Scientists have to contribute to the world?

JJ: Citizen-Scientists are the force that keeps science accountable. They bring science out of the classroom and into the community, moving discoveries from the ivory tower into everyday life, whether in the form of backyard biology (see recent examples of students doing DNA barcoding to identify species or amateur astronomy where networks of hobbyists can map the stars as well as any PhD).

Most significantly, Citizen-Scientists put a public face on science and technology. They are our number one hope for counteracting the fear and hysteria that opponents of H+ promote. Often, the public mistrusts technology because it is something foisted on them by governments, the military, or corporations. The outcry over genetically modified organisms largely stems from alarm at the prospect of a few multinational entities attaining control over our food supply. The Citizen-Science and Open Science movements reverse this relationship, “domesticating” technology and re-integrating science into our lives on a human scale.

h+: Why did you attend the first H+ Summit? What did you experience or learn?

JJ: I try to never miss an H+ event. An attendee is always guaranteed to come away inspired by the latest developments in longevity research, robotics, or artificial intelligence… there is something for everyone. It is impossible to resist the infectious, dynamic optimism that permeates the H+ Summit.

h+: What is the connection between open science, Citizen-Science and Transhumanism?

JJ: I came to transhumanism because it attempts to articulate a philosophy of life rather than an apology for death, to overcome our arbitrary limits instead of apathetically accepting them, and above all, because it dares to proclaim the possible. Sadly, most of humanity does not share our vision. Transhumanism is often perceived negatively, and sometimes portrayed as the refuge of uncaring narcissists striving for ageless omnipotence, or as a clique of techno-elites.

In what should be an era of accelerating progress, we’re stuck with crude monopoly mechanisms that evolved in an industrial economy that failed to anticipate collaborative sharing…

Open Science is the key to successfully harnessing game-changing transhumanist technologies for the benefit of all. All sorts of biases and agendas creep into our science and technology policy, affecting which paths are taken, and who controls the outputs of research. The current patent system’s insidious effects on biomedical innovation are instructive. In what should be an era of accelerating progress, we’re stuck with crude monopoly mechanisms (20-year patent terms) that evolved in an industrial economy that failed to anticipate the networked flows and collaborative sharing that a knowledge economy requires. The extension of patents to all sorts of new subject matter in the mid 1980’s, and the cancerous metastasis of laws, lawyering, and litigation throughout the innovation system, delay and distort the products that reach the market. If we don’t correct the flaws in the paradigm, we’ll suffer horribly as lifesaving and enhancing breakthroughs are further delayed and dangerously suboptimal technological standards are adopted.

The history of technology is replete with examples of individuals and companies abusing their position to control and constrain end-user behavior. I already mentioned how Edison feuded with Tesla, embarking on a disinformation campaign in the AC vs. DC “War of the Currents.” The early adoption of a standard, be it the QWERTY keyboard, VHS vs. Betamax, or even something as mundane seeming as the screw (standardized in the 19th century), creates path dependencies and has profound effects on future innovation in a field. We’ve muddled through until now, but if obsolete business models focused on proprietary short-term advantage lead to the wrong platform in synthetic biology or nanotech, it may be game over. Digital rights management (DRM) is problematic enough… imagine “Neurological Rights Management” asserted over your brain-machine interface.

There is a way to fund R&D and commercialize technology without abusing the customer/user/citizen and restricting his or her freedom. The term Open Source evokes some of this, but I’ve started to think the concept of technological freedom is more apt. We must change our relationship to technology, and reaffirm the basic freedoms to tinker, innovate, and hack ourselves, our products, and our world.

h+: What should H+ be focused on?

JJ: H+ must focus on rallying its members to act; become a DIY biologist or neuroscientist; join a hacker space, learn to be a maker… spread these ideas. Be a citizen scientist, because scientists are not going to solve our problems if left to their own devices. Like all humans, they respond only to the incentives they face. We must change those incentives before it is too late.

In the words of futurist Buckminster Fuller: “In contradistinction to the esteem in which world society now holds them, scientists are the most confused and irresponsible human beings now alive. They lay “eggs” —and the businessman sells the eggs to the politicians and the politicians “scramble” or “drop” or “easy-over” those eggs as we hurtle toward oblivion. If our lives are left to their care we will all soon be dead.” (Utopia or Oblivion)

Joseph Jackson will be speaking at the H+ Summit at Harvard University, June 12-13, 2010