Amateur inventors, health hackers and DIY technology enthusiasts are at the forefront of an EU-funded initiative to help make cutting-edge science accessible, engaging and interactive for the public, blurring the lines between citizen and scientist to spur dialogue, collaboration and innovation.
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Focusing on the socially important topic of health and medicine, the Sparks project is bringing a travelling exhibition to 29 European cities to highlight how citizen innovators and professional researchers are taking science out of the lab and into their own hands.
Beyond the Lab: The DIY Science Revolution tells seven stories of individuals who are developing technological innovations to advance healthcare for themselves and society in general.
Health hacker Tim Omer, for example, is developing an artificial pancreas system to help deal with his diabetes, while Swedish citizen inventor Sara Riggare is working with her neurologist to devise simple but innovative ways of collecting data about the progression of her Parkinson's disease and her response to treatment.
Other innovators showcased in the exhibit are crowd-sourcing information to address healthcare issues, such as Doreen Walther, a German entomologist behind the Mosquito Atlas Project to study the spread of invasive disease-carrying mosquitoes across Europe, and Shazia Ali Webber, who is tracking environmental pollution as part of a campaign for cleaner air in the UK.
Philipp Boeing and Bethan Wolfenden, meanwhile, are putting sophisticated science into peoples hands by creating a laptop-sized lab in a box, opening up molecular biology to amateurs and schoolchildren.
The most visible and recognisable face of Sparks is Beyond the Lab: The DIY Science Revolution, an exhibition questioning who is responsible for scientific research and who will be doing science in the future, says project spokesperson Clémentine Daubeuf. The non-scientists who hack and experiment to find solutions to their health conditions embody the DIY science and citizen science movements that promote an open approach to socially responsible research and innovation.
Blurring the lines between scientists, citizens and artists
Further enhancing public engagement, the exhibition includes three art projects developed in collaboration with scientists during a three-month residency at the Ars Electronica FutureLab in Linz, Austria.
Suggesting possible healthcare solutions for the future, one artwork consists of a 3D-printed headset in the shape of a unicorn horn that tracks attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, and another engages with the idea of inhalable nano-robots that may one day block your appetite for junk food.
In parallel with the exhibition, which has so far attracted more than 850,000 visitors in 16 countries, Sparks participants are organising a range of activities to stimulate expert-citizen interaction about science. These include reversed science cafes, pop-up science shops, incubation workshops, hackathons and scenario workshops.
By triggering interaction between researchers, citizens and other stakeholders, Sparks activities create opportunities to identify priority research questions and co-design scientific solutions and public policies, says Daubeuf. For instance, networking activities in Poland enabled the Copernicus Science Centre to mobilise doctors, designers, engineers, students and researchers to improve procedures to save the lives of foetuses with diaphragmatic hernia, while recommendations from a reversed science café conducted in Veli Loinj, Croatia, have been adopted by local authorities as part of an action plan to reduce noise pollution.
Feedback from visitors and participants shows that the exhibition has positively contributed to raise awareness about DIY science and leading medical innovations, Daubeuf says.
Data collected at the events and the experience of the Sparks team will feed into policy recommendations on how to improve public communication about responsible research and innovation, possible leading to follow-up projects to engage citizens more broadly with other scientific fields.