Citizen Science in the Age of COVID-19
By Mubina Schroeder, Ph.D., and Inas Kelly, Ph.D.
The Fed slashing interest rates to stave off recession and the House passing an extensive relief package to address the economic fallout from the outbreak are stark examples of how an epidemic like the coronavirus affects the economy. From college campuses to sports arenas, we are seeing deleterious effects of closures and cancellations before our eyes, yet concern for the economy represents only one reason why leaders may avoid disclosing information to its citizens. This is an election year and reassurances to the public count and need to be strategic. The opacity and contradictory nature of official responses in the U.S. (and abroad) has led to members of the general public needing to find other sources and means to stay informed to protect themselves. This is the case even when state and local authorities hold substantial power to disseminate information, a fact that offers some hope, as we have seen in California. But decisions to limit travel to and from other countries typically occur at the federal level, as we have seen with President Trump’s suspension of travel from Europe. Enter citizen science.
Citizen science is an egalitarian movement to democratize information between members of the general public, professional scientists, and subject matter experts. The origins of citizen science are nothing new. Notable scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Benjamin Franklin were not even trained formally in science but engaged in scientific endeavor. In the past, the lines between a member of the public and scientist were much more blurred. In recent years, citizen science has experienced a sort of renaissance due to Web 2.0 technology that allows for extensive communication and data-sharing—and because citizen science fits so well with the idea of democracy in terms of access to information (Dewey). In response to the vicissitudes of the outbreak occurring here, citizen science has exploded in online spaces such as Reddit, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The subreddit, r/coronavirus, has become the fastest growing subreddit of all time, with hundreds of thousands of unique members. It is such a repository of information, which teams of scientists and medical experts have gotten together on the popular discussion website Reddit, to bypass the distrust and politicized agendas of policymakers to give communities accurate scientific information as it relates to the coronavirus. In another incredible example of public scientific endeavor, coronavirus patients from all over the world have been sharing photographs of their lung x-rays to create a library that scientists can utilize as they hone their diagnostic skills. Aside from Reddit, which currently harbors the largest coronavirus forum, there are numerous forums throughout social media. As of now, we are aware of hundreds of Facebook groups devoted to the recent outbreak of COVID-19 novel coronavirus. These forums help to foster crucial discussions about issues such as surrounding availability and effectiveness of masks, availability of test kits, how the virus is transmitted, what the current mortality rates are by age and location, and whether or not schools should remain open. They can help inform people regarding their health care options and protect them. Members of the public are citing research studies and have contacted experts on their own when responses from officials have been imperfect or insufficient. One WhatsApp group is devoted to figuring out how to create a usable model for 3d printing face masks for health care workers. Even at academic institutions, students are problem-solving their way through the coronavirus confusion: in one of our classes, students created a live Google Earth map with coronavirus data points pulled from the World Health Organization site. For their part, researchers all over the globe are recognizing the power of engaging the public to help with scientific progress, and citizens in turn are increasingly relying on them to do so. Many citizen science resources as they relate to COVID-19 can be found here: https://www.citizenscience.org/covid-19/. There is also a smartphone app that assists researchers in gathering information about the coronavirus from ordinary citizens. That being said, with all its benefits even citizen science should be used with caution, as the scientists are not subjected to the same levels of peer review and regulation as they would be in an academic setting.
The threat of a global pandemic has hovered over the human population for a long time. There have been previous outbreaks in the form of SARS, MERS, and Ebola, and, in fairness, when the coronavirus first broke there was a lot of uncertainty pertaining to the possible scale of a pandemic. Ideally, governments would have embraced the warnings of the scientific community and prepared for a robust response, but the benefits of doing something immediately evidently didn’t outweigh the cost of inaction. It’s occasionally difficult to strike a balance between inaction and over-preparedness –predictions involving complex, multi-factored issues, such as climate change and pandemics, are becoming more difficult in a rapidly shifting world. Models of prior pandemics now serve as poor references for prediction and are no longer reliable in a changing climate. Unlike climate change, where considerations such as time preferences might be factored in by economists (how much do we really care about future generations?), the situation
here has escalated in a matter of only months, and so we are talking about the present. In some cases, discussions about the state of affairs is even about the very near past, since developments are difficult to keep abreast of. In this case of the coronavirus, we have also become more connected than ever, and previous pandemics cannot begin to predict how fast and easily this can spread. We now know that the numbers are going up exponentially, and while the mortality rate appears to keep rising, we still have relatively sparse information on the denominator; random testing is desperately needed. All we do know is that we have many more cases than the statistics currently show. Lack of information can cause panic, which never serves the public good during any type of crisis. Citizen science offers an equipoise to the confusion through which scientists and the public can work synergistically to solve dynamic problems associated with the outbreak. So, stay informed, verify your sources, and as one journalist suggested (Mounk), “cancel everything.”
Mubina K. Schroeder, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Molloy College in New York. She co-directs the Cognition and Learning Lab at Molloy College and serves on the Executive Board of the Global NGO Committee of the United Nations.
Inas R. Kelly, Ph.D., is an associate professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University and a research associate in the Health Economics program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She earned her Ph.D. in economics in 2004 with specializations in health economics, labor economics, and public policy and has published extensively in these areas.
Dewey, J. Democracy and Education. Courier Corporation, 2004.
Mounk, Y. "Cancel Everything." 10 March 2020. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-cancel-everything/607675/. 13 March 2020.