Crowdsourcing for Health

Crowdsourcing for Health

Through a novel crowdsourcing exercise, Scientists Without Borders leverages insights from animal science to tackle malnutrition.

Global problems demand global resources to solve them—such is the theory behind the creation of Scientists Without Borders, an initiative that designs and executes projects to tackle these challenges, and provides a free web-based platform where users from around the world connect to address pressing global needs. While Scientists Without Borders works on a diverse array of challenges, we have recently focused significant attention on the critical issue of maternal and child malnutrition. We are excited to be working in conjunction with The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences, which focuses on advancing the field of nutrition science, on several of these projects.

Indeed, the work of both initiatives reflects the awareness that despite renewed global attention to the catastrophic consequences of maternal and child under-nutrition, the burden of the problem looms large over efforts to solve it—and those in the developing world are particularly hard hit. If we are to reverse this trend, coordinated, multi-sector approaches are required.

Closing knowledge gaps

A major barrier to improving maternal and child nutrition is the existence of gaps in scientific knowledge about essential processes and biological mechanisms related to healthy fetal growth and nutrition for infants and children. This lack of understanding impedes the development of effective evidence-based approaches and interventions for vulnerable populations.

To fill in the gaps, we need collaboration and knowledge-exchange among stakeholders in the nutrition space, as well as the ability to harness the capacity of people and institutions from outside the traditional nutrition science community. It is for this reason that Scientists Without Borders recently launched an exciting crowdsourcing project in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and in conjunction with The Sackler Institute, to connect hundreds of diverse participants among the human nutrition, animal science, and veterinary science communities. By engaging in high-level discussions about the knowledge needed to advance these fields, these participants have the potential to generate significant and disruptive advances for maternal and child nutrition. For example, when we spoke to scientists in these disciplines, they noted that there is common interest and urgency in understanding in the role of the microbiome, as well as clearly identifying biomarkers in human and animal nutrition.

How we're doing it

In order to compress the timeframe on these kinds of cross-disciplinary insights and advances, we designed an invitation-only crowdsourcing platform. We leveraged our global network to invite hundreds of experts from a variety of fields to participate in a 45-day crowdsourcing activity where participants could freely pose questions and ideas and engage in discussions about voids in scientific research, promising interventions or innovations, and unique collaborations or areas of priority. Specifically, we encouraged discussion around seven areas: biomarkers and metabolomics, nutrition and epigenetics, vaccines and immunology, animal models, biofortification, and dietary change.

We built in functionality that allowed participants to rate the contributions of their peers by awarding scores for innovation, feasibility, and expertise. In this way, the ideas with the greatest traction among, or of the greatest interest to, users could be elevated and identified for further refinement and amplification.

Subsequent to the crowdsourcing event, Scientists Without Borders, in partnership with the Gates Foundation and in conjunction with The Sackler Institute, is hosting a small group of select stakeholders (leaders from academia, policy, multinationals, and funding entities) to discuss and build on the most promising ideas. The in-person convening will provide the opportunity for dialogue and brainstorming between high-level stakeholders around new ideas and new opportunities for collaboration, which they can then translate into actionable steps and outcomes.

We believe that bringing together leading thinkers—through both crowdsourcing activities and in-person exchanges—will create the foundation for a global community of interested actors contributing their unique insights and perspectives to the critical area of nutrition, and beyond. To this end, we will soon open the crowdsourcing platform to the public at large.

In the meantime, I encourage you to visit to respond to or post a challenge that sparks your professional or humanitarian interest. Science is the path to a better future for humankind and strategic collaboration between scientists will get us there.

Shaifali Puri is the executive director of Scientists Without Borders.