Open Science — Incremental Advances

December 6th, 2006

A couple of days ago a colleague referred to the Open Science post a while back, and I realized I had meant to follow up. So here goes.

Given the issues with “open science” how might progress towards openness be made?

  1. It’s unlikely that those with a big financial stake in the current arrangements will change. This obviously includes the commercial ventures aiming for large returns on their investment. It probably also includes the major research and development institutions who may not be public companies but who are deeply involved in the current system. If you’re an academic institution and you’ve spent millions of dollars outfitting labs and have a set of people working and studying at your institution assuming the research and its results will be treated a certain way, it’s hard to make big changes. So even if one takes the position that these organizations should change (which I’m not necessarily advocating) I think it’s unlikely that leadership toward Open Science will come from here.
  2. It’s more realistic to expect change around the edges than at the very center of the system. Periodically I read about diseases that could probably be treated, but exist mostly in impoverished areas. So there’s very little economic reward for the necessary research, development and deployment. I could imagine organizations concerned with alleviating these diseases to be more inclined to find ways to collaborate, particularly if relevant patents have expired.
  3. There is usually a hierarchy of research organizations and universities; the “top tier” schools are more able to get research funds and to capitalize on the results of their work. But, there are massive numbers of very smart and very motivated people at other organizations. It may be that collaborative scientific techniques will develop at unanticipated places that aren’t well positioned in the current system.
  4. It may be that successful Open Science doesn’t start at the central, biggest problems. It may grow by solving pieces of problems. Free compilers existed before the complete GNU Linux operating system; the same incremental change may occur with Open Science. Sadly, many of the big problems are the health topics where people’s lives are at stake.
  5. The realm known as “Citizen Science” may well lead the way. Citizen Science is based on large numbers of people working together. Since those participants aren’t expected to have scientific training, there are a whole set of problems that can’t even be approached through this method. But we may be surprised at the areas where Citizen Science can move our understanding forward.

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