Saturday, January 17, 2015

Industry Niches for Citizen Science - Part I

My current long-term goal in citizen science is to identify business models that will both benefit from, and support the work of, citizen scientists.  This is a symbiotic relationship that can push our field to the next level.  But while some admirable steps have been taken by various entrepreneurs, there is still much room for potentially profitable but currently untested models.  Exploring them together is my goal.

One of my first approaches has been looking at the crowdfunding of citizen science projects to see what types of things the public (or future customers) are interested in, and to find ways future citizen science entrepreneurs can raise funds for their ideas. Consider this a look at selling citizen science to public (retail) consumers.

Another great place to start is looking at the types of business that rely heavily on science and technology to run their operations, develop innovative products, or both.  These would be like selling citizen science to business (commercial) consumers. What are they, how can they benefit from citizen science, and how can citizen scientists get support from them?

An easy place to start is just a brainstorming session...not only does it lay a quick framework but it's also a great way to think about the problem from a citizen science side first.  That way, high-tech fields that are less relevant to citizen science won't come up immediately and we can build our model with the appropriate emphases. That being said, we still want to some rigor around the process.  So we need to do some research.

One of the first places to look are government sources, specifically the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS codes).  This is a listing of nearly every type of business operating in the country and is the basis for a wide amount of statistical reporting.  But it is not based on the products or types of workers; instead it is designed to classify industries based on the "...primary purpose of...facilitating the use of economic data." (  So while this gets us started, and may help us attach meaningful statistics to our eventual citizen science model, I'm not sure this gets us where we need to go.

Another problem with NAICS codes is they do not provide any information on the science or technology basis of the classified industries.  So we need a new source for that too.  Looking around a bit I found this article (by Daniel Hecker at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) developing a list of high-technology fields based around the NAICS model. Although a number of criteria are often used to define high-technology fields (such as production of high technology products and intensity of R&D employment), this Hecker article was forced (for a variety of reasons) to rely solely on those industries employing a high proportion of science, engineering, and technical occupations. From that paper,
"An industry is considered high tech if employment in technology-oriented occupations accounted for a proportion of that industry’s total employment that was at least twice the 4.9-percent average for all industries. With this relatively low threshold, 46 four-digit NAICS industries are classified as high tech.15 Within that group, three levels of high technology were specified. Level I Monthly Labor Review July 2005 59 includes the 14 industries in which these occupations accounted for a proportion that was at least 5 times the average or greater and constituted 24.7 percent or more of industry employment. Level II includes the 12 industries in which the high-tech occupations were 3.0 to 4.9 times the average (constituting 14.8 percent to 24.7 percent of total employment), and Level III includes the 20 industries with a proportion that was 2.0 to 2.9 times the average (making up 9.8 percent to 14.7 percent of total employment). 
These high-tech industries are a heterogeneous group in terms of production processes and output, covering a broad range of industries. Level I includes the computer and electronic products, aerospace, and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industries; the computer software, Internet, and data processing industries in the information sector; and three professional, scientific, and technical services industries..."

Although the data is from 2002 and the data from from 2005, it's still a great place to start. Extracting from his table rankings,

Level I

  • Computer systems design and related services
  • Software publishers
  • Architectural, engineering, and related services
  • Scientific research and development services
  • Internet service providers and web search portals
  • Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing
  • Internet publishing and broadcasting
  • Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing
  • Data processing, hosting, and related services
  • Aerospace product and parts manufacturing
  • Communications equipment manufacturing
  • Semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing
  • Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing
  • Other telecommunications

Level II

  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Forestry
  • Commercial and service industry machinery manufacturing
  • Manufacturing and reproducing magnetic and optical media
  • Basic chemical manufacturing
  • Professional and commercial equipment and supply merchant manufacturing
  • Industrial machinery manufacturing
  • Federal government, excluding postal service
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services
  • Audio and video equipment manufacturing
  • Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution
  • Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing
Interestingly, while the crux of this analysis is centered around employment Hecker does delve a bit into industry classifications based on those producing high technology products.  This does not follow the NAICS system and instead uses his own industry definitions.  His top ten high technology product industries are:
  • Biotechnology
  • Life science technologies
  • Optoelectronics
  • Information and communications
  • Electronics
  • Flexible manufacturing
  • Advanced materials
  • Aerospace
  • Weapons
  • Nuclear technology
These are informative and will be very useful if we opt to go further and pull stats on these fields. But for my purposes, helping people think of entrepreneurial opportunities in citizen science, they leave me wanting much more.  There is little connection to the underlying science and no recognition of the underlying niches of each field...these niches being the place where citizen science innovation could thrive.

After all this discussion that is what we are looking for.  Not the broad industry characteristics or trends, but the niches within those industries.  This approach holds promise to me for many reasons, but primarily because citizen science is very much a grass roots phenomenon (almost by definition) and as such does not have the clout or resources to take on huge corporations immediately.   Instead it must build itself up, gathering resources, infrastructure, and public acceptance before its potential can be met. Integrating citizen science into science industries holds much potential, but needs to start out small and build itself up from there.

There is so much to say on not just why we need to be targeting specific niches, but also ideas on what those niches should be.  Sadly way too many though.  So I'll have to hold those thoughts for now, but stay tuned next week where we'll talk much more about this topic and start tying things together a bit.

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