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.

The Biopunk Movement and Synthetic Biology

In certain areas of science it is clear that citizens are using the Internet to participate in critical scientific research. Such is the case in the field of synthetic biology, where a group of citizen scientists are trying to tinker with the human biology for the benefit of all. As always, one must ask not just about the benefits but also about the consequences and must realize that such unregulated biological tinkering is potentially dangerous. The existence of possible hazards has led to a discussion about whether or not these citizen scientists’ research should be regulated, or even prohibited. Nevertheless, the Biopunk movement, as it has come to be known, is in full force, as biopunks are utilizing the Internet to try to resolve basic biological problems.

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. She advances the idea that scientific literacy, defined as the ability to do science, is a human right. Meredith Patterson wonders why the citizen scientists of today are not yet accepted into the scientific community.

Is Science a Human Right?

Richard Feynman once said of science, that it “carries with it no instructions on how to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil. The product of this power is either good or evil, depending on how it is used.” He continues this idea by repeating words he heard visiting a Buddhist temple, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.”

In an ideal world, science would be a human right and everybody would have the option to become a scientist. Undoubtedly today, the desire for freedom to privately pursue scientific inquiries seems to be growing all over the world but 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.


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r8 - 20 Apr 2012 - 02:02:47 - AlanDavidson
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