Law in the Internet Society

The Internet has transformed the world of science. Citizen scientists are once again back at it, researching and developing products and services in all fields of science. At the same time, a group of these citizen scientists have begun to fight for their belief that science is a human right, an idea opposed by many government officials and much of the scientific community.

A Brief History of Public Participation in Scientific Research

Throughout history, science was often the pursuit of amateur or self-funded researchers and inventors. One just has to think of citizen scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin to realize the importance of ordinary citizens in their contributions to science. There was a time when scientific research, and the knowledge needed to do the research, was accessible to citizen scientists.

The 20th century transformed science into a worldview dominated by university-employed researchers and government-employed researchers. As scientific research became more expensive, curiosity for knowledge was no longer the only requirement for scientific success. Monetary investments became a crucial factor in the success of scientific research. Moreover, the granting of patents for processes spiraled out of control, hindering ordinary citizens from delving into the sciences without legal support in recent years. The 20th century forced citizens that wanted to make a career out of the sciences to join government research labs, universities, or private corporations in order to achieve their goals.

The Internet and the Return of Citizen Science

In recent years, advances in Internet technology have allowed for greater web access for scientific resources and knowledge. These advances have lead to a rise in the popularity of citizen science. By connecting interested people and creating a platform for people to build on each other’s ideas, the Internet has assisted greatly in the push for citizen science.

The Internet has created a push for citizen scientists in a number of ways. Including the gamification of science projects, ranging from tracking birds to archaeological projects, generating scientific interest in the public. Ordinary citizens can also participate in the sciences, on a daily basis, by using mobile phones and other portable devices that contribute to the world’s scientific knowledge. For example, the iPhone offers apps for citizens to take part in the sciences, including a NASA sponsored app that helps track meteorites in the night’s sky.

In certain areas of science it is clear that citizens use the Internet to participate in critical scientific research. In the field of synthetic biology, a group of citizen scientists are using the Internet as platforms for trying to tinker with the human biology for the benefit of all but we must also consider the potential dangers associated with such unregulated biological tinkering. The unforeseen consequences have led to a discussion about whether or not these citizen scientists’ research should be regulated, or even prohibited from participating in scientific research. Nevertheless, the Biopunk movement, as it is known, is in full force.

In Meredith Patterson’s Biopunk Manifesto, she draws a comparison between biology today and mathematics in the 1990’s. She claims that the biohackers are playing the same role in biology as hackers played in the 1990’s, researching and developing possible advances in the human system. Meredith Patterson wonders why the citizen scientists of today are not accepted into the scientific community, as she believes in the idea that scientific literacy, defined as the ability to do science, is a human right.

Is Science a Human Right?

Richard Feynman once said that science “carries with it no instructions on how to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil.” He continued with the Buddhist saying, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.” In my opinion, science very well may be considered a human right but it should still be regulated.

Undoubtedly today, the desire for freedom to privately pursue scientific inquiries seems to be growing all over the world but the unforeseen consequences require some regulation. Future regulatory regimes should attempt to curb the technology and scientific knowledge from getting into the hands of people that may use it with harmful consequences. Ensuring safety without restricting scientists should be the goal of regulation when considering citizen scientists.

Any such regulatory scheme must take into account the fact that we live in an Internet society, in which information always seems to end up reaching the citizens. Governments have to come to terms with the fact that as we move into the future, the flow of information will move towards citizens even more quickly than it does now. The seeming inevitability of this information flow should make the government think about its changed role in the future.

When governments have tried to maintain control over technology in the past, “good” and “bad” people still found a way to get their hands on it (think nuclear weapons technology). Excessive regulation sometimes fails and is quite costly. Instead, government should consider a domestic and international framework that assists in connecting citizen scientists to each other and to the scientific community in an organized, market-making fashion. One example that come to mind is the Citizens in Space program, a collaboration between citizen scientists and the U.S. Rocket Academy, that seeks to introduce approved citizen scientists into utilizing suborbital spacecrafts. Other examples include the work of the DIYbio organization and the BioBricks? Foundation, both supporting synthetic biology in the pursuit of public interest.

Governments worried about the potential dangers of citizen science could best regulate these people by assisting them in creating relationships with others including the scientific community, national security organizations, NGO’s, etc. In turn, governments would help create a self-regulating system, where reputation and legitimacy matters, rewarding the good and punishing the bad. More importantly, these relationships could help humanity in reaching a higher standard of living by forming a market for investment in the solutions to problems that citizen scientists seek to resolve.


Webs Webs

r10 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:21 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM