Citizen Science and Job Creation

Since my last post, I’ve had the privilege of attending two really interesting conferences here in Houston.  In the first one, the “Immersive Technology Conference,” I gave a talk on “Virtual Reality and the Future of Work,” my first public talk on some of the topics I’ve discussed on this blog. More recently, I attended “De Lange Conference X” at Rice University on the topic of “Humans, Machines and the Future of Work.”  At both of these conferences, I discussed the concept of “Virtual Public Jobs Programs” [1] with several people, and got some great feedback about the idea in response.

During one such conversation at the De Lange conference, I was encouraged to look into “citizen science,” a term that was new to me. [2]  The Oxford Dictionaries website defines citizen science as [3]:

The collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world by members of the general public, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

This definition implies that Virtual Public Jobs Programs, as I’ve proposed them on this blog [4], would effectively be a form of citizen science that focuses on virtual worlds rather than the natural world.  In addition to this, the public sector would pay Virtual Public Jobs Program participants for their work, thus using citizen science as a job creation tool. [5]  In this post I will briefly discuss how universities can help to facilitate this process.


Universities Can Play Key Roles in Future Job Creation

It’s important to emphasize here that the public sector won’t need to directly hire members of the public to create citizen science jobs in the future.  In fact, this approach may be too bureaucratically complicated and/or wasteful in some cases. [6] Instead, it may generally make more sense for the public sector to provide grants to universities to conduct research that requires high public participation to yield high quality results. [7] These universities in turn would then screen and hire members of the public to participate in their research efforts as needed.

Virtual Public Jobs Programs would be great candidates for scientific research that requires high public participation, because programs could be designed to employ millions of people.  Universities that successfully run citizen science programs of this complexity would also benefit from the institutional knowledge gained from doing so, making them more domestically and internationally competitive. [8]  Furthermore, competition between universities to win public sector grants of this type would likely lead to very innovative research proposals, and the creation of intellectually challenging and socially useful citizen science jobs. [9]

Universities should thus be able to make a great case to the public sector even today for why public sector support of citizen science research may be crucial for job creation in the future.  In fact, universities can proactively begin to design citizen science programs that would be able to employ large numbers of people if funded, and propose some of these programs to the public sector.  This should provide the public sector with excellent policy options if private sector job shortages caused by automation develop in the future. [10]


References and Additional Notes

[1] To reiterate, Virtual Public Jobs Programs would involve the public sector sponsoring giant virtual reality simulations to gain practical insights on complex social scenarios. Millions of people could be hired to play improvisational acting roles in the virtual reality simulations, thus generating huge amounts of data for analysis. Others could be hired to staff various design, monitoring, analysis and public relations roles related to the simulations. My key point in this post is that the public sector could either fund these types of programs directly (e.g. by creating modernized versions of New Deal era jobs programs like the WPA), or indirectly (e.g. by giving research grants to universities).

[2] Thanks to Dr. Richard B. Freeman of Harvard University for suggesting this to me.

[3] Quote from, access date February 16, 2017.

[4] See my post The Jobs of Tomorrow: Part 2 of 2 for more discussion of Virtual Public Jobs Programs.

[5] Of course the public sector could also pay people for participating in more traditional, real world oriented, citizen science research.  Funding citizen science jobs in general would give the public sector great job creation flexibility.

[6] For example, it might be wasteful for the public sector to try to hire a team of professionals with a specific mix of expertise, and provide them with the proper institutional support, if such a team already exists and is functioning efficiently at a university.

[7] Considering the funding of citizen science jobs associated with virtual reality simulations would give the public sector a lot of job creation flexibility that it wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, a small town with one thousand unemployed people may have only a small number of real world based citizen science tasks to do that are truly useful. In this case, it would be inefficient for the public sector to hire one thousand people to do real world tasks that ten people can handle, for example.  Instead, the public sector could create one thousand jobs associated with a Virtual Public Jobs Program simulation that is designed to provide valuable insight into other areas.

[8] Public sector funding of educational institutions to create jobs for the public also seems likely to be seen in a positive light, and would strengthen relationships between universities and society as a whole.

[9] For more information about citizen science, see this Wikipedia article, and this Wikipedia link. SciStarter and the Citizen Science Association website also provide lots of information about the space.  Here also is a link to the Citizen Science Alliance website.

[10] Virtual and augmented reality technologies have the potential to greatly enhance the effectiveness of collaboration between scientists and citizen science volunteers.  However, these technologies will probably also increase competition between traditional businesses and between workers, as they make it much easier to conduct business remotely.  It is thus very important for society to begin preparing to replace jobs that may be obsolete in the near future. Universities can and should play important roles in this process.

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