Archive for December, 2011

Sharing results in science – a new revolution?

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Science is generally a closed society organized into little circles of highly trained specialists, meaning that only a few specific minds engage to solve any given problem. The system is closed and is shaped in part by the force of tradition, but the larger challenge is that most scientific data is proprietary and the scientists are competing for the first place. A scientist works long and hard to generate original data, and then expects to get the reward in the form of publishing the first research paper to describe some new phenomenon. The researcher is not going to share his data with others, particularly strangers, any more than say, an investigative reporter would want to share his notes before a story has been written and published in the front page of The New York Times. Harnessing non-scientists to help in specific scientific problems requires sending your data out into the world – something that science is afraid to do. The scientist’s interest in keeping things private and getting credit, in other words, is directly opposed to society’s interest in tackling some problems with the help of the best minds. There are exceptions, such as large astronomical and biological data sets that are available for anyone. For example, particle accelerators have produced a new collaborative working model for science and globalization, with hundreds of specialists all over the globe working to solve a specific problem in physics. Most data generated by these experiments are stored in the “cloud”, using the advent of cloud computing. Biological databases that are supported by the US government, such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), store data from whole genomes of several organisms (including our genome) and are opened to the general public – something unusual. However, in the last 10 years, there has been a boom in technology that allows large numbers of people to do amazing and cooperative things with information, but the scientific establishment has taken only baby steps toward figuring out ways to share it productively. According to the former theoretical physicist Michael Nielsen that wrote the book “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science”, sharing in science will become something more common than we expect, specially now that social media is reshaping society. To encourage this shift, the federal government, which funds the United States research, has been pressuring scientists to work more cooperatively, in groups, and share more of what they find faster. In addition, there are nascent efforts within academia in order to identify ways that scientists might be recognized for their contributions to the community as a whole, beyond the publication of their individual discoveries. Scientists need to get rewards for what they are able to share – this will be the new trend in science. Cloud computing, the emergence of different types of social media and the possibility to transfer and share data faster and more reliably will open new ways of doing collaborative science. Society will gain a lot with this trend in science and technology. I believe that contemporary science will be all about sharing information. We might be experiencing now what will become the “open science” era. That is my hope…