uBiome and "Citizen science"

uBiome is a crowdsourced project aiming to do the genome sequencing of all the bacteria that lives in the (healthy) human gut. It’s a huge project and there are two interesting things about it.

  1. It’s trying to be funded in a very non-traditional way (crowdsourcing) – not through government or philanthropic funding bodies, or even through corporate-driven (i.e., pharmaceutical company) funds.
  2. It involves citizen science – meaning anyone can take part and anyone can help contribute the data and the research (another comparable project is Berkeley’s SETI@Home project where anyone’s computer can help process data in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Read an article on Scientific American about uBiome here.

Great idea, right? Here’s the only thing I am concerned about. When researchers ask human participants to take part in their research, they are supposed to be very careful about generalising the participant’s individual results. Often we do not even report back individual results to a participant unless something is abnormal (and then we refer them to a medical health professional, who can interpret their results, do further tests, and recommend treatment). When researchers analyse data they are looking at general patterns across a large group of people – not making generalisations about one person’s data. uBiome, on the other hand, lets the users (participants) compare their data against the group. I would be cautious about doing this in a research project without having adequate diagnostic tools (such as a consultation with a doctor to help them accurately interpret their results) in place. Research, even corporate-driven, has a lot of strict ethical guidelines and regulations and I would like to see these types of crowd-sourcing, citizen science projects have the same thing.

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