Open Science: What’s up with Canada?

Disclaimer: My opinions are not representative of the Government of Canada. Just a CO-OP student, thinking some thoughts, and making them public.

I imagine that many of you have also been very enraptured in the changing public sector landscape south of the border. Often I’m filled with an almost desperate need to look away, but yet cannot bring myself to miss a single second. It’s what I imagine most people experience when they watch Keeping up with the Kardashians.

A key turning point occurred earlier this year when a number of pages were wiped from the official White House website. The erasing of the climate change data, in particular, sparked an entire movement within the scientific community. Dozens of rogue Twitter accounts popped up within hours, protesting the hostility towards scientific inquiry and open publishing. In April, the hashtag #ScienceNotSilence began trending and protests dubbed “March for Science” were organized in more than 600 cities worldwide (including Ottawa, where I live!), to support science and evidence based research.

It was these events that captivated me, and made me wonder what the situation was really like in Canada. My opportunity to explore this topic further came up in May, when I was asked to assist in note-taking at an Open Government session at the annual Blueprint 2020 Innovation Fair. I sat in on the Open Science discussion, listened to introductions, and soon enough, my fingers were flying across my keypad, feverishly trying to track what everyone was saying. I went in with a blank slate, and left with what felt like a dozen question marks floating above my head, but more excited than ever before about a project I’d experienced during a CO-OP work term. And thus began my journey into the world of Open Science. My colleague, Portia Taylor, has been unconditionally supportive of my learning in the field. She’s challenged me to write a blog post on my first impressions of Open Science.

So here goes.

What is Open Science anyways?

  • According to Foster, Open Science is the “practice of science in such a way that others can collaborate and contribute where research data, lab notes, and other research processes are freely available, under terms that enable reuse, re-distribution and reproduction of the research and its underlying data and methods.”
  • The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines it as a means “to make the primary outputs of publicly funded research results — publications and the research data — publicly accessible in digital format with no or minimal restriction.”

Basically, it’s about making your science research public so others can use it, but it’s also about making a systemic change to the way science and research is being done — by sharing as early as possible in the process, and fostering collaboration throughout.

The term “Open Science” was coined by economist Paul David in 2003 in an attempt to describe the properties of scientific goods produced by the public sector and in opposition to the perceived extension of intellectual rights in the area of information goods. In recent years, Open Science has become an active area of policy development in the OECD and beyond.

So what?

So why does it matter if science is publicly available or not?

  • Open search tools improve the efficiency of research
  • Greater scrutiny of science can allow for more accurate verification of results

And, greater access can:

  • Reduce duplication costs in collecting, creating, transferring and reusing data and scientific material
  • Allow more research from the same data
  • Multiply opportunities for participation, even on an international scale, in the research process.

According to Erin McKiernan (listen to her PLOS podcast episode on Open Research here), a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a major benefit of open research is visibility. The knowledge that you are going to share your work will make you more careful in how meticulous you are. It also makes for more consideration in explaining research in clear terms, which is extremely beneficial for researchers.

Let’s talk about the real world.

Making data public is huge when you’re talking major scientific discoveries. Just last week, a team from MIT published an article with data taken from the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a major piece of the Large Hadron Collider from the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) people. The team was able to use CMS data to demonstrate that the equation for proton collision can also predict both the pattern of these jets and the energy of the particles produced from the collision. A long suspected hypothesis has now been verified.

And this was all made possible because back in 2014, CERN released their experiment data from the CMS on an Open Data Portal. Open Science cases such as these further the possibilities of future discoveries and shows that open data has a major scientific value.

So what’s going on with Canada?

A lot.

Work on federal Open Science officially began in the government in 2012, and federal scientists had been experimenting with open practices even before this. The first Open Science commitment was made in 2014–2016, and the most recent in the Third Biennial Plan Open Government Partnership in 2016.

Meeting this commitment is broken down into 3 milestones:

Milestone 1: Increase the public availability of data and publications produced from federal Science and Technology (S&T) activities.

Milestone 2: Increase engagement with Canadians on federal S&T activities, including, as appropriate:

  • Enhanced communication of scientific participation opportunities in support of federal S&T activities; and
  • Targeted consultations on best practices for increasing the impact of federal S&T activities

Milestone 3: Develop metrics to track collective federal progress on open science activities.

Our CIO for the Government of Canada, Alex Benay, has asked for a white paper on Open Science efforts in the public service. This is being drafted in cross-departmental collaboration, including with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and other science-based departments and agencies, with Treasury Board Secretariat. The white paper is to be published later this fall.

Early November will feature a working level technical management meeting and panel discussion to share key lessons learned about Open Science implementation and to discuss how the government and Montreal Neurological Institute can collaborate for mutual benefit.

On November 21st, there will be an Open Science Armchair discussion to explore how biomedical Open Science can drive competitiveness for Canada. The panel will feature a number of experts in the field.

What exists already?

A key area for science right now is the Open by Default portal. 54% of the datasets within the portal are science-based, although more have been added since this number was calculated. The goal would be to have this number move up — and to feature more genres of science, from more science-based departments and agencies, while involving all key leaders in Open Science governance. And I’d love to see even more contributions from women! #WomenInSTEM

NRCan is leading Open Maps that has tools to visualize a range of datasets, created by a number of different departments and sources to make the data even more useful. Additionally, The National Research Council’s DataCite Canada provides standard data identifiers.

I am not studying science. But as a citizen, I want to be able to read about our most recent space exploration data, and about our advances in biomedicine, and about the impact of climate change on our agriculture. And I most certainly want my friends studying and teaching in the sciences to be able to access this information so that they can further their respective fields of research. It seems ridiculous to have integral and potentially life-changing research be hindered by paywalls or for researchers to be told data is inaccessible because of legislation. Something I’ve noticed in my participation on the file is that people want to talk. They want to share. They want to discuss and collaborate. Making scientific data open and accessible is a huge step in the right direction to facilitate these discussions.