Scientifically Proven* to Improve your Life – An Interview with Useful Science

Useful Science is a new site that aims at making science understandable and applicable. Source: Jaan Altosaar, used with permission.

Useful Science is a new site that aims at making science understandable and applicable. (Jaan Altosaar, used with permission)

*This site has not undergone any kind of scientific review process – but it is super cool.

What started as a summertime dinner bringing together a group of friends from Douglas Hall has turned into a beautifully-designed and informative site about science. Useful Science, which is overrun by current McGill students and alumni, is trying to translate scientific experiments’ language into meaningful changes for actual people – a website where “every sentence is backed by science.”

Jaan Altosaar, the founder and director of the project and a McGill alumnus, said the debut of the site last week was “about as good as we could have expected.” On average, people have been spending “about three and a half minutes” on the site, which could translate to dozens of scientifically-grounded life-hacks.

The articles summarized on the site can be collected from RSS feeds and science blogs, or come from outside tips. Articles from journals beyond Science, Cell, and Nature are considered; impact factor doesn’t matter as long as the journal is “semi-respected” and, ideally, open-access. The posts on the site tend to be a sentence or two long, written in “high school-level English.” Posts must follow certain guidelines to ensure that no inappropriate causation is implied. To ensure accuracy, contributors are responsible for fact-checking the post against the published work before it goes online. As the site becomes more popular, Altosaar says the guidelines may be tightened further. In the future, Altosaar would like to have authors themselves tip off the site to the potential implications of their work.

While the project has just begun, the Useful Science team is already looking for funding opportunities. The site is currently funded by a combination of the team’s own money and donations. One such donation is clearly visible – the clear, clean interface. The site was developed by Cameron Spencer at Lab 43. Serendipity played a key role in snagging Spencer for the project. Spencer owns the domain name “science.is”. If Altosaar had gotten what he originally wanted, Useful Science’s Happiness category could have been found at “science.is/happiness”, for example. What they got instead was potentially far more valuable. When the Useful Science team contacted Spencer about his domain, he had just left his job to freelance full-time. Spencer agreed to work pro bono on the site to help build his portfolio, although Altosaar says that if the site starts bringing in funding, they hope to compensate Spencer for his work.

For now, Altosaar is optimistic about his group’s experiment and intends to keep it going “as long as [they] can.” In time, he hopes that Useful Science will become “the resource for anyone looking to stay on top of science” without scanning through hundreds of journals. Perhaps the categories on the site, which include happiness, health, and sleep, will also eventually make people more aware of the variety of ways that science can touch our lives in useful and concrete ways.

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