Recent years have seen technological revolutions in informatics, communications, and the life sciences. Xconomy readers are deeply engaged with these trends, but may be unaware of the most important development of all, the transition (sometimes painful), to an Open Science system better suited for a global, networked, knowledge economy. Sadly, rapid technical progress has thus far not been matched by a revolution in the democratization of scientific problem solving. Instead, the practices and institutions that comprise our science and innovation paradigm are badly strained, and in some cases, arguably crumbling in the face of rapid technological and economic change.
Peer review, the scientific journal, the way we measure scientific reputation and apportion funding…these basic practices embody certain unquestioned assumptions that may not have been updated since their 17th century origins. Now, a courageous contingent of early adopters is blazing a path toward greater collaboration and transparency in science. From July 29-31 at Berkeley, we’ll tell their story.
We can conceptualize the Open Science Shift roughly as follows:
1. Better Tools for Collective Intelligence:
Activists around “open notebook science” have been quick to point out their frustrations that scientists have imported the limitations of pen and paper into the digital realm. Scientists are slowly adopting Web 2.0 tools for online science. BioTorrents is a new protocol for sharing scientific data sets, inspired by the popular BitTorrent file sharing system. The rise of Open Access publishing (PloS) has blazed a new path for journals, but is only a harbinger of things to come. Science blogging and nascent social networking for scientists hint at new possibilities for faster, more accurate measurement of scientific reputation, if only the right balance can be struck to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” to accelerate progress. eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist transformed how we conduct commerce and share our stuff. Just imagine the impact of an analogous transformative platform for the way we do science. One possible contender, backed by some of the folks who were behind Skype and Lastfm, is Mendeley Research Networks.
2. Bottom up, “Open Innovation” and DIY efforts
You may have heard of Dr. Hugh Rienhoff, who made the cover of Nature a few years ago after his heroic efforts to discover the genetic mechanisms behind his daughter’s rare condition gave new meaning to the phrase “personal genomics.” But do you know about Scott Johnson of the Myelin Repair Foundation, Craig Benson who founded Beyond Batten, or Beth Anne Baber, who created the Nicholas Connor Institute for Pediatric Cancer? Each of these “cure entrepreneurs” saw a failure of the current biomedical system and stepped up to create their own research initiatives to fill the gap. Come meet garage biology “hackers” like the ones pictured here. Can a generation of “DIY” biology hobbyists help kickstart a new biotech revolution the way the home brew computer club did for personal computing? Disclaimer: I’m biased, since I helped assemble the lab shown in that link!
If garage labs worry, you, perhaps it will reassure you to know that special agent Ed You of the FBI is on the case (or perhaps not!) We’ll have several leading thinkers on the topic of bio-security respond to the growing DIY biology phenomenon.
3. Radically different financial, legal, and incentive mechanisms that encourage and require collaboration, transparency, and sharing.
The vast majority of research funding in the US is routed through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Does it make sense to have such a “single point of failure” for science funding, and what are the biases built into the system? How about “microfinance for science” crowd-funding platforms that specifically fund young grad students and post docs instead of older, established principal investigators whose reputations are already secured and, who, after gaining tenure, may have put their best days behind them? That’s what motivated David Vitrant, founder of fundscience.org, Dave Fries, creator of Sciflies.org, and Zach Burke, who oversees Eurekafund.org, a funding site for technologies focused on energy and environment.
Over two and half days, July 29-31, at the inaugural Open Science Summit at Berkeley, we’ll consider all these issues and more. The venue itself is significant. Only a short time ago, Berkeley received the largest corporate grant in the university’s history from BP. Along with many of our conference participants, I enthusiastically support synthetic biology, an emerging field of tremendous promise that could prevent and mitigate environmental catastrophes like the one we’re experiencing. Yet, the role of Big Oil/Big Energy in funding this set of technologies, and the modern research university’s dependency on this money, raises hard questions that must be answered. Will we choose an “open source” path for developing synthetic biology platforms, transparently assessing the safety risks and preventing any one actor from achieving a monopoly, so that everyone shares the economic benefits?
When Berkeley recently announced an option for incoming members of this year’s freshman class to participate in a genomics study, the move was immediately criticized by several prominent ethics groups. Yet the age of personal genomics is here, like it or not. Discouraging students from exploring this frontier seems out of touch at best, paternalistic at worst.
The UC system is under siege with budget cuts that threaten to gut the very foundations of California’s knowledge economy. In the final insult to already serious injuries, Nature Publishing Group and the UC library system are currently engaged in a standoff over proposed hikes in subscription fees to the world’s most prestigious set of journals.
Clearly, it is time for all those concerned about the future of science to stand together to build a better path forward. Please join me at the end of July to chart this course.
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