Tag: citizen science


A grand experiment in science funding

Among all the young scientists I know, I think Ethan Perlstein is one of the most innovative in the way he has adapted to the internet era. His website is incredibly unique among academic websites, he is all over the social media and his latest experiment in crowd-funding his research is something I'm definitely keeping an eye on.

The basic idea is that he has identified a project (giving meth to yeast mouse brains -see the comment by Ethan below-, I think) and put it up on Rockethub, which is a crowd funding platform. The basic idea is he is looking for people to donate to his lab to fund the project. I would love it if this project succeeded, so if you have a few extra dollars lying around I'm sure he'd really appreciate it if you'd donate.

At the bigger picture level, I love the idea of crowd-funding for science in principal. But it isn't clear that it is going to work in practice. Ethan has been tearing it up with this project, even ending up in the Economist, but he has still had trouble getting to his goal for funding. In the grand scheme of things he is asking for a relatively small amount given how much he will do, so it isn't clear to me that this is a viable option for most scientists.

The other key problem, as a statistician, is that many of the projects I work on will not be as easily understandable/cool as giving meth to yeast. So, for example, I'm not sure I'd be able to generate the kind of support I'd need for my group to work on statistical analysis of RNA-seq data or batch effect removal methods.

Still, I love the idea, and it would be great if there were alternative sources of revenue for the incredibly important work that scientists like Ethan and others are doing.


Citizen science makes statistical literacy critical

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Amy Marcus has a piece on the Citizen Science movement, focusing on citizen science in health in particular. I am fully in support of this enthusiasm and a big fan of citizen science - if done properly. There have already been some pretty big success stories. As more companies like Fitbit and 23andMe spring up, it is really easy to collect data about yourself (right Chris?). At the same time organizations like Patients Like Me make it possible for people with specific diseases or experiences to self-organize. 

But the thing that struck me the most in reading the article is the importance of statistical literacy for citizen scientists, reporters, and anyone reading these articles. For example the article says:

The questions that most people have about their DNA—such as what health risks they face and how to prevent them—aren’t always in sync with the approach taken by pharmaceutical and academic researchers, who don’t usually share any potentially life-saving findings with the patients.

I think its pretty unlikely that any organization would hide life-saving findings from the public. My impression from reading the article is that this statement refers to keeping results blinded from patients/doctors during an experiment or clinical trial. Blinding is a critical component of clinical trials, which reduces many potential sources of bias in the results of a study. Obviously, once the trial/study has ended (or been stopped early because a treatment is effective) then the results are quickly disseminated.

Several key statistical issues are then raised in bullet-point form without discussion: 

Amateurs may not collect data rigorously, they say, and may draw conclusions from sample sizes that are too small to yield statistically reliable results. 

Having individuals collect their own data poses other issues. Patients may enter data only when they are motivated, or feeling well, rendering the data useless. In traditional studies, both doctors and patients are typically kept blind as to who is getting a drug and who is taking a placebo, so as not to skew how either group perceives the patients’ progress.

The article goes on to describe an anecdotal example of citizen science - which suffers from a key statistical problem (small sample size):

Last year, Ms. Swan helped to run a small trial to test what type of vitamin B people with a certain gene should take to lower their levels of homocysteine, an amino acid connected to heart-disease risk. (The gene affects the body’s ability to metabolize B vitamins.)

Seven people—one in Japan and six, including herself, in her local area—paid around $300 each to buy two forms of vitamin B and Centrum, which they took in two-week periods followed by two-week “wash-out” periods with no vitamins at all.

The article points out the issue:

The scientists clapped politely at the end of Ms. Swan’s presentation, but during the question-and-answer session, one stood up and said that the data was not statistically significant—and it could be harmful if patients built their own regimens based on the results.

But doesn’t carefully explain the importance of sample size, suggesting instead that the only reason why you need more people is “insure better accuracy”. 

It strikes me that statistical literacy is critical if the citizen science movement is going to go forward. Ideas like experimental design, randomization, blinding, placebos, and sample size need to be in the toolbox of any practicing citizen scientist. 

One major drawback is that there are very few places where the general public can learn about statistics. Mostly statistics is taught in university courses. Resources like the Kahn Academy and the Cartoon Guide to Statistics exist, but are only really useful if you are self motivated and have some idea of math/statistics to begin with. 

Since knowledge of basic statistical concepts is quickly becoming indispensable for citizen science or even basic life choices like deciding on healthcare options, do we need “adult statistical literacy courses”? These courses could focus on the basics of experimental design and how to understand results in stories about science in the popular press. It feels like it might be time to add a basic understanding of statistics and data to reading/writing/arithmetic as critical life skills. I’m not the only one who thinks so.