The Open Science Movement

Citizen scientists solved the structure of a viral protein that had been stumping scientists for a decade using a video game.

Citizen scientists solved the structure of a viral protein that had been stumping scientists for a decade using the video game Foldit.

As I have talked about previously, science is a pretty closed system. Scientists do all the work pretty much in secrecy until they are ready to present a polished story. They then present their results to each other in a language only they can understand. Everyone else then has to count on the media to provide updates on what scientists have discovered.

Now don’t get me wrong, the system works very well. It isn’t perfect especially as results are based on more complex data but it is self correcting and important discoveries are made all the time. But would it be even better if we opened things up a bit?

A recent story about how gamers solved a scientific riddle that had eluded scientists for ten years suggests that more transparent science might be better science. And this is the goal of the Open Science movement.

I had the opportunity to interview Joseph Jackson about this open science movement and about his upcoming conference, the Open Science Summit. Joseph is a philosopher, entrepreneur, and activist in the Open Science movement. He is the founder of the Open Science Summit, which occurs for the second time on October 22-23, 2011 in Mountain View and co-founder of BioCurious, the Bay Area biology lab for citizen scientists.

Below is an email interview I did with him where I ask about his upcoming summit, what the open science movement hopes to achieve and how someone can get involved if they are interested. Enjoy!


What is the Open Science Summit?

Joseph Jackson
Joseph Jackson at his lab in Menlo Park, CA. May 17, 2011

The Open Science Summit gathers a broad coalition of individuals and organizations striving to transform our science and innovation system to be radically more effective. We examine the biggest opportunities for distributed collaboration and problem solving, while considering the barriers and obstacles standing in the way of the transition to a more fully Open Science paradigm. This year's Summit covers many topics including the future of scientific publishing and peer review (Open Access), data sharing and the future of data driven science, the effects of the patent system on innovation, personal genomics, collaborative (Open Source) models for drug discovery, and new transparent models for clinical trials.

What is the Open Science movement trying to achieve that the current scientific system can't?

By definition, to function, science is supposed to be Open. Indeed, science is arguably humanity's greatest achievement, our most successful, Open Process, for discovering the truths about our universe and then harnessing that knowledge for the benefit of all mankind. In contrast to other human processes (politics, which is an intrinsically contentious undertaking focused on controlling and distributing scarce resources), Science is supposed to be an objective, essentially collaborative endeavor, in which, even when competing, all participants are building on the efforts of one another to improve our collective understanding of reality. In practice, of course science has always been subject to manipulations, government or corporate agendas, distortions, human biases, and other messy realities.

Since the 1980's a series of extremely troubling trends have converged to threaten the very foundations of science and innovation at precisely the time when we need to harness the power of distributed collaboration to solve global problems. There has been an unprecedented explosion of patenting (and the advent of patents for software and biological materials and processes that were never considered patentable subject matter). There has been an erosion of public trust in science, and the institutions of science are under increasing strain (be they government funding agencies like the NIH whose budgets are shrinking, or major research universities which appear increasingly schizophrenic as they struggle to reconcile their ostensible public benefit missions with intense pressure to commercialize technologies developed largely with public funds).

We have the chance to adopt new models and build new institutions better suited to conducting distributed, massively data driven, collaborative science in the 21st century. This means we have to change the incentive structures and reputation systems that govern science; moving away from old metrics like impact factor (which has a near death grip on scientist's career prospects) and toward new ways of measuring reputation that reward participation in other kinds of scientific activity that are new of critical importance (commenting on articles after publication,scientific blogging and communication to the public, data curation, and more).

Do you see Open Science replacing the current system or complementing it?

In the long run, Open Science will transform the way science is done, enhancing the best aspects of science, while helping correct potential abuses and distortions. There are many interrelated components of Open Science, and I don't expect everyone to embrace every part of the vision. Rather, there is a continuum of openness and we're exploring how to improve each dimension of our innovation system by increasing collaboration where and when we can. Quite often, people seize on one aspect or particular argument about Open Science and may have a defensive reaction. They may have a very strongly held or even instinctive position about the role of the patent system or the sanctity of peer review and protest that "X" reform will never work because of "Y and Z" when in fact, all of these components are evolving together: Open Science isn't naively proposing that we abolish a particular institution while holding everything else constant...of course this won't happen overnight.

There is immense inertia surrounding the way science is conducted, measured, and rewarded. Many understand that it is time to embrace change; let's just hope that we don't reprove Max Planck's dictum once again in this context: "Science advances one funeral at a time."

What do you see as the dangers of having people able to do biological experiments in their garage? The benefits?

The idea of garage biology has received tremendous media attention in recent years, as journalists conjure overhyped images both positive and negative ( garage hobbyist as economic savior creating the next billion dollar enterprise or curing cancer vs. the crazed "biohacker" terrorist unleashing a pandemic).

The reality is that we are experiencing a profound shift in humanity's relationship to technology of all kinds, and biotechnology is no exception. Tremendous economic benefits are unlocked when technologies become accessible to a wide pool of innovators and users who can develop new applications with them and ultimately build new products and services.

Freedom of scientific inquiry is vital to our society and economy. As terrifying as the thought of garage biology gone wrong is, it is unlikely that regulation is the solution to this concern. Instead, restricting the ability of responsible individuals and groups of independent citizen scientists to conduct research, will not make us safer; though it will make us poorer, both intellectually and materially.

How can your organization help people do science on their own if they are interested?

We're holding a series of classes to introduce the public to the fundamentals of modern biotechnology. Certain activities are best done in a group setting, especially when you are first starting out. We're also able to take care of proper disposal of any waste that may be generated.

Biological experiments are expensive. What resources are available for people who want to do this on the cheap?


Of course, I'll say the best way is for you to come on down to BioCurious in Sunnyvale, where we have everything you need to get started. Additionally, there are a number of great science education companies that sell kits that can help you get started. In San Jose, for example is The Science Shop. Carolina Biology is one of the oldest education companies in the US and more recently, one of our own BioCurious team has launched cofactor bio, a store aimed at the hobbyist biologist.