Building Communities and Engaging with Science from a Non-Institutional Position: An Interview with Lucy Patterson

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With FORCE2017 being just a couple weeks away, the final preparations are in full swing and we are getting everybody ready to join the fun! This week, I would like to introduce you to keynote speaker Dr. Lucy Patterson. Lucy, originally from the UK but now based in beautiful Berlin, holds a PhD in Developmental Biology and describes herself as a ‘community scientist who thinks science should be available to and for the benefit of everyone’.

Lucy is passionate about community-led initiatives and DIY science. That especially becomes clear when looking at the Berlin scene: She is the co-organizer of the annual hackathon Science Hack Day Berlin, co-founder of the Berlin Science Hacking Community, a member of the interdisciplinary art/science/technology collective Lacuna Lab, and coordinator of the DIY Science Network.

As DIY Science and I never crossed paths before I talked to Lucy, she explained to me what it is all about and how the wider scholarly community can benefit from it. I also wanted to learn more about Lucy’s experiences building and maintaining these communities seeing that she has been involved in several different successful community-based projects.

Come see Lucy’s talk on 'Outside the academy: DIY science communities' on October 26th.

Lucy on DIY Science

What is DIY Science and how did you get into it?

To me, DIY science as the practice or application of science outside of an institutional context. It has a focus on hands-on creativity, hacking and making, and is usually a community practice with open sharing of DIY instructions and protocols. DIY scientists organise themselves, for example, through diybio community labs, bioart collectives, civic environmental monitoring networks, or interdisciplinary science hacking communities. Projects and motivations can be really diverse, from parents investigating and sharing the most sustainable practice for use of recyclable nappies, to DIY PCR tests for horsemeat in supermarket lasagne, to an international project developing open source insulin production protocols, to community development of DIY monitoring tools to support environmental activism. Outside of the academy it’s an opportunity to see science through different lenses: as something to share, to play with, for self-empowerment, but also as an institution to question.

For me, alongside my passion for science, I’d always been into making and DIY. So when I left academic research for science communication it was a natural thing for me to gravitate towards. However, it was only in Berlin that I first found a community to connect with. I joined the first Science Hack Day Berlin hackathon in 2013 as a participant, then joined the volunteer organising team soon after. With the mixture of hackers and coders, artists, designers, weird/former scientists, activists, community organisers, and enthusiasts, I really felt like I found my people. Since then we’ve been growing our community here in Berlin and connecting out to similar initiatives and communities locally and around the world. The new dimensions it has brought to my appreciation and understanding of science have been incredibly inspiring.

How is it different from citizen science?

The term citizen science is most often used to describe the kind of crowdsourced research where volunteers support academic research projects by gathering or analysing data, or by donating processing power from their home computers. In recent years, with the increasing importance of public participation, it’s become a very popular concept with more and more projects as well as communities of academic citizen science practitioners, supported by a lot of new research funding.

Citizen science is often also used to describe DIY science and other grassroots non-scientist-lead initiatives, which are definitely part of the same broad trend. In practical terms, however, DIY science is quite different to academic citizen science: without institutional backing projects have a much harder time to access funding and political support, so projects are often run by volunteers in their spare time. Some find a footing through cultural funding as interdisciplinary art projects, others found startups or partner with industry, some find supporting work through (in)formal science education, and some (mainly in the US) find philanthropic support for civic projects... so goals and culture can also be quite different.

DIY projects rarely focus purely on empirical research, often more concerned with different applications of science, and they’re not subject to the same demands and systems of evaluation – publishing a research paper is rarely the end goal. Perhaps most importantly, the level of involvement of non-scientists, who often initiate the projects, can be much deeper. So it’s useful to have an own-term to talk about these kinds of projects and the challenges they face.

How does DIY Science impact scholarly research?

The Open Science Hardware community (OScH) is a good example where collaboration between academic scientists, DIYers and hackers supports innovation in scientific technology development. Frugal and open approaches often driven by DIY scientists in that network are valuable to academics looking to stretch their research budgets as well as maintain the possibility to adapt and customise their equipment. These communities are also evolving a culture of sharing and open source documentation that’s going to be increasingly important if science is to break away from the old competitive systems of evaluation and funding.

But other than that, I’m not sure DIY science does significantly influence scholarly research as it is currently practiced. It’s rather more the case that it’s filling a gap in society – building a kind of scientific counterculture and bringing scientific approaches to societal challenges that are not otherwise addressed.

So, for now, perhaps DIY science is mainly helping to build the other side of the open science equation. The more people feel empowered to use science as a tool to address their needs and problems, the more science can be informed about what those needs and problems are. Similarly a better informed public can engage with contemporary science more critically. My hope is that in time we’ll build a continuum between academic science and the rest of society, with a flow of ideas, perspectives and questions in both directions.

What can both communities learn from each other?

Of course DIY science takes a huge amount from academic science – learning from its huge body of knowledge, technical development, and practices of rigorous experimental design. Indeed there are a lot of former and current academic researchers involved DIY science, drawn by the freedom to follow their passion or curiosity, share their knowledge, and perhaps to do science in a different way. DIY science will never compete with academic science at the bleeding edge of scientific discovery, but that’s not really the intention.

However, with the best will in the world, those with the tenacity, good fortune, or privilege to secure academic positions can only hope to represent a small slice of our diverse societies.

DIY science is a hack to grow and diversify the scientific community outside of the walls of the institutions. Greater diversity brings greater creativity and social responsibility. Connecting with DIY science communities can provide an interesting shift in perspective for academic scientists looking to ground their work in more immediate real world needs.

Lucy on Science Hack Berlin

You helped to grow a community around Science Hack Day Berlin, which has now evolved into a regular meetup as well. What were some of the challenges in building and maintaining the community?

Our annual hackathon, Science Hack Day and the twice-monthly science hacking meetups that spun out of it have become a well-loved platform for a lot of different people to come together. Over the years we’ve grown a loose but friendly interdisciplinary community of scientists, developers, designers, artists and others, that connects to the wider network of art/science/tech communities and projects in Berlin and further afield. We find a lot of people from the creative and tech industries who are interested to connect their work and skills with science, and a lot of young scientists who are looking for something outside of academia, so the idea of science hacking is quite appealing. Our events are very social and playful, deliberately avoiding any expectation to produce commercially oriented prototypes – we primarily hack out of curiosity and for the joy of hacking, trying to be as open as realistically possible. We see our community as a place to connect with others and as a jump-off point for further collaboration.

Our biggest challenge (and perhaps greatest strength) has been sustaining our work and managing our capacity as a non-hierarchical volunteer organisation. Good communication, decision-making, bringing in new members, building culture and transitioning responsibility, managing expectations and division of workload have all been difficult at times, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. We learned to always put the integrity of the team first.

Our next challenge is to take this to the next level – to find basic funding so that we can sustain ourselves to build something more ambitious. The potential of our community is huge, and we would love to channel it to address civic, social or environmental problems. Grassroots projects are still considered too high risk for the majority of funders, so there are very few opportunities to apply and, as volunteers, very little capacity to develop applications. This is the main reason why several of us from different communities and initiatives founded the DIY Science Network earlier this year, to raise awareness and advocate for greater support.

How do you ensure diversity and inclusivity?

As far as we can we try to encourage diversity. We are an elective community, but we try to be as welcoming as possible to anyone who would be interested to join our events. An important part of that is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. You don’t have to have serious hacker cred to get involved. We celebrate the non-technical as much as the technical. We’re often more interested in ideas than in their implementation. Whilst we do give out prizes for different categories, these are only small token prizes – we try to avoid making it a competitive event.

Each year we try to improve the male/female ratio by deliberately reaching out to women, both as participants (last year we made it to 40% women) and as speakers, jury-members etc. If we had more capacity we would love to offer workshops to different communities, reaching out to those who might feel too intimidated to join a hackathon.

How do science hacking and Open Access go together?

To hack is to creatively overcome the limitations of a system, to improve or subvert the intentions of its original creator. So science hacking can include a lot of different things... You can hack the idea that science is performed by scientists inside research institutions by hacking together DIY equipment in your kitchen or local hackerspace. You can hack the traditional pipeline of technology transfer by using DIY science approaches to tackle social/civic challenges or to inform and inspire cultural projects.

I think science hackers have a lot in common with open science campaigners and activists who are fighting to make scientific data and literature openly accessible, legally or otherwise – ‘hacking’ the legacy publishing system. The overarching goal of both is better knowledge transfer: to break down the barriers to the spread of scientific knowledge. And it is certainly much harder for DIY scientists and hackers to do that without open access to the scientific literature.

Lucy on FORCE2017

What does cultural change mean to you?

The scientific system has brought us a tremendously long way, but I believe we still have some work to do to make sure science is really serving everyone in society. Also, the more we learn, the more aware we become of the huge problems we and the planet are facing. It’s more important than ever that we tap into the ingenuity of as many people as possible to find equitable solutions together. Unlearning the old ways and shifting to more open culture and practices is a fundamental part of that.

What draws you to FORCE2017?

I’m interested to meet the people at the front line of open science, to see how they envisage scholarly communication in the future, and see what motivates them. I’m curious to see how far open science can go. I’d like to explore common goals and hopefully make some good connections.