UHLC Prof Evans champions "hidden figures" at London conference on 'citizen science'   

Professor Barbara J. Evans after her keynote address, jet-lagged but keeping a stiff upper lip after a long day that inauspiciously began with British baked beans for breakfast.

March 8, 2017 — University of Houston Law Center Professor Barbara Evans recently traveled to London to deliver the keynote address at a conference exploring the growing worldwide citizen science movement.

Citizen science occurs when ordinary laypeople assume the roles of innovators and researchers in a people-driven process of scientific discovery, as opposed to treating research as the exclusive province of professional scientists who handle discovery for a disengaged public.

"We tend to forget that all throughout history, regular people were the main drivers of scientific discovery.  A few citizen scientists became famous, like Carl Linneaus in the 18th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th, but  there were innumerable 'hidden figures' like the women who invented settled agriculture millennia ago by figuring out how to cultivate plants from seeds,"  Evans notes.  "Researchers do suspect it probably was the women. The guys would have been out hunting sabre-toothed tigers."

Evans' talk coincides with the selection of this year's Provost Summer Read Book, "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." In an effort to promote the advances of underrepresented female minorities, a screening of the recent film and panel discussion will take place on campus this week.

"This novel ties into the incredible work of previously unrecognized individuals, and I am proud to champion it," says Provost Paula Myrick Short. "I think it is our duty as educators to encourage each member of our campus community – whether they are faculty, students, or staff – to embrace the 'hidden figure' within themselves."

The concentration of scientific discovery in the hands of a small, professionalized scientific "elite" was a 20th century aberration, Evans says.  A burgeoning 21st century citizen science movement may be poised to "take science back" from the professionals in an age where people are empowered with amazing computing power right in their hands, access to their own health data, and even direct-to-consumer CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing kits.

The Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King's College London hosted the conference, titled "Critical Studies of Citizen Science," marking the culmination of a multi-year UK/EU-funded collaboration of English and European researchers to explore the roots and the potential of today's citizen science movement.  

Evans says she was "incredibly honored" to be asked to deliver the keynote address.  Her own work on citizen science has focused on a "mechanical—albeit crucial—legal issue" of how citizens can take control of their own health data and assemble massive consumer-driven data resources to fuel 21st century genomic discovery. 

Last year, the Provost's Global Faculty Development Fund paid Evans' way to speak at a genomics debate at Oxford. "That put me on the global stage," Evans says. "I've had to upgrade my wireless package to field all the international calls that ensued." 

While in London, Evans also was pressed into service to speak at an event at Covent Garden to launch a new book by Professors Barbara Prainsack and Alena Buyx.  The book, "Solidarity in Biomedicine and Beyond," extends a line of scholarship first opened by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, which is England's de facto bioethics advisory body. 

According to Evans, bioethics has been stuck for 40 years in a flawed set of principles that treats individuals as autonomous but too vulnerable and disorganized to protect their own interests. "The upshot of traditional bioethics is that we need bioethicists to tell us what is good for us," Evans notes.  "That's wrong. Maybe individuals are stronger than the bioethicists gave us credit for. We just need to get organized and work together in solidarity to advance science while protecting all of our rights."   

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