Can your science be open if your methods are WHACC?
Do our methods create an unnecessary barrier to Open Science?
I knew we had a problem as soon as I lifted the can. It was too light. The acrylic cement sloshed on the bottom, barely an ounce left. We were one day into a month-long marine robotics course at a remote field station in Papua New Guinea, and our reagents had already evaporated. We triaged, improvised, and persevered. That wouldn’t be the only problem, though. Throughout the week a thousand tiny issues cropped up, issues that had never been a problem before. Slowly, a theme emerge. We had designed this course in San Francisco, in a warehouse surrounded by experts. When we translated our syllabus over, we accounted for the major hurdles encountered when teaching in remote locations, but we had failed to anticipate the smaller issues, issues that would compound during the month. Our teaching methodology was centered on experience that was Western, base in a homogeneous environment, had easy access to materials, and was climate controlled.
Our methods were WHACC.
There are few scientific fields more dependent on expensive, specialized equipment than my own discipline — deep-sea conservation genetics. Between the multi-million dollar robots, ships that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per day, next-generation sequencing facilities, and even just the day-to-day needs of a generic molecular lab, the resources required to conduct this work is beyond the reach of scientists from all but the wealthiest nations. This is a problem.
A good scientist is able to pursue important questions regardless of the limitations of the tools available to them. Unfortunately, as analyses and assay become increasingly complex, we tend to rely upon a bootstrapped methodology that builds, layer by layer, upon itself. Often, these bootstrapped methods become enshrined into the formal scientific literature as “how this must be done”. Why is this a problem? Science is a product both of inquiry and of the environment, both physical and social, in which that inquiry was conducted, and bootstrapped methods are often dependent on those conditions for success. These are, more often than not, lab environments that are Western — they are shaped by a culture of inquiry and availability of resources common in Europe and North America.
These labs are WHACC. These are labs that are Homogeneous — they are built on a standard model and you can count on similar, if not identical tools, equipment, and reagents whether or not you’re working in a lab in Berkeley, California or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These are labs that are Accessible — getting supplies, consumables, and replacement parts is trivial. These are labs that are Climate Controlled — the environment is stable, with reliable temperature and humidity.
Psychologists have identified a phenomenon called WEIRD sampling, in which research subjects — often volunteers from local universities — tend to be Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic countries. WEIRD samples bias data by inferring broader assumptions about human psychology based on a skewed subset of people. WHACC methods may not bias results in the same way, indeed, they are often the most precise procedure for analyzing data, but they prevent researchers without access to WHACC facilities from pursuing scientific inquiry. WHACC methods present a major barrier to open science.
Open Science is accessible science. It is science that can be conducted independent of resource limitations, science that allows broad participation of researchers from a plurality of cultures and backgrounds. Open Science should strive to minimize WHACC methods and, when WHACC methods are the only option, attempt to identify and validate alternatives to those methods.
Open Science is decolonized science. When only a few researchers have the means and access to the necessary tools of the craft, they determine the pace and direction of science. Especially in conservation, this means that priorities are being determined by institutions several steps removed from stakeholders most immediately affected. Minimizing WHACC methods ensures the broadest possible participation from the larger scientific community.
Open Science is autonomous science. It allows scientists to determine the direction of their research and lifts the barriers that exist when science is limited by access to core facilities and large research grants. It enables citizen scientists to participate as full members of the scientific community.
Not all disciplines can cast off their WHACC methods. We will always need ocean-class research vessels and multi-million dollar submersibles, but there is room for non-WHACC methods as well. We can deploy fleets of low-cost, open-source robots to join their larger siblings studying the sea. We can develop molecular tools that work in environments more challenging than a climate controlled lab. We can build tools and share expertise that grow the scientific community in new and novel ways.
And when WHACC methods are warranted, we can ensure as few barriers to access as possible.