Science Wants to Be Open

There is power in a simple sketch. If done right, it can can communicate a complex idea without the need for several thousand words. There’s danger, too. Sometimes it’s too simple, and the sketch demands (rather than replaces) a longer explanation. The latter happened to me recently after I used this in a presentation:

My goal was straightforward: I wanted to draw attention to the full spectrum of curiosity. I was giving a talk to a room full of PhDs and I wanted them to suspend their notions of science as usual.

Science is a special type of question asking: the collective, systematic organization of knowledge about our universe. We draw the “this is science” line in a specific place. In order to qualify, a question or explanation must be testable, reproducible, and peer-reviewed.

We take this line seriously, as we should. The academy demands this level of rigor. But this line has serious consequences, and it should be re-examined from time to time.

I didn’t intend for this sketch to be the center point of the conversation, but it was. And now a longer explanation is owed.

In the beginning, there was no line. There wasn’t a global, coordinated effort to organize knowledge. It was localized by groups and individuals, cultures and religions. The Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th century could be perceived as the first line, but it was blurry. As the term “science” gradually crept into popular use throughout the 18th century, it became more and more distinct. It was this era that gave rise to the foundation of modern science: the institutions, methodologies and journals.

The 20th century brought us the professionalizing and industrialization of science, perhaps perfectly articulated in Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier. The results have been staggering and thrilling. Through education and specialization, the line became even more distinct as science raced forward. The whole idea of “science communication” emerged to as an attempt to cross this growing divide, from the scientific community to the general public.

The conversation around advancing science focuses on pressing onward and upward inside the line — more funding, more education, more results. And of course it does. That’s where the most valuable knowledge comes from. However, a growing capacity for discovery is building outside the line, as new technologies and methods raise the potential for the non-traditional. We deserve a better conversation about moving the line outward — about opening science up.

Rethinking Institutions

Outside the line, the dogma of modern scientific institutions falls apart. Decades of administrative bloat have created entrenched interests without any competitive alternatives. That’s starting to change.

New models for research are being pioneered by independent scientists like Ethan Perlstein (Perlstein Lab) and Saul Griffith (OtherLab). By decoupling themselves from university labs, they’ve been able to skirt the costly indirect fees and control the destiny of intellectual property they create. This creative control means they are free to quickly spin out companies — as they’ve done numerous times — if the outcomes prove economically viable, or move into entirely new fields if the research pulls them in different directions. It’s lean science.

That‘s not the only knock on universities, either. They are also being challenged as the preeminent learning mechanism for higher education. Online platforms and classes are becoming widely available, with the breadth and quality continuing to improve at a breakneck pace, from Udacity’s nanodegrees to MIT’s OpenCourseWare. And as university tuitions rise, the appeal of learning online will continue to grow.

Universities aren’t the only modern scientific institution being reimagined, either. So are the gatekeepers and couriers of information: the scientific journals. For the most part, scientific careers are still measured and rewarded according to the number and importance of their published papers, especially in journals like Science and Nature. The fundamentals of print publishing meant that there were a limited number of pages that could cover and report the scientific news of the day, further perpetuating the importance of the line. The internet changed that economic reality. The past two decades have seen a sharp rise in the number of open access papers and publications, including efforts by the big name journals. The limiting factor is no longer page count, it’s corralling qualified peer-reviewers. As more creative researchers begin to experiment outside the line, open access becomes more than just a moral imperative. It becomes deeply pragmatic.

The Economics of Discovery

In many ways, science has been the last holdout in the disruptive shift from analogue to digital economics. The music industry, the mainstream media, and Hollywood (as well as nearly every other information and creative industry) have had to face the reality of the internet — distribution costs going to virtually zero. That’s happening now with open access publishing, and that’s only one piece of the puzzle. The costs of producing scientific works are also undergoing a dramatic change. Over the past few years, thanks to new digital fabrication tools like 3D printers and methods for sharing designs online, there has been an explosion of low-cost, open-source tools for doing science and exploration.

The list of these new tools is long and growing, from underwater robots to automated lab benches. With the same philosophical zeal that first propelled the open access movement, makers and tinkerers are gaining momentum and finding markets for their affordable alternatives. The performance of these new tools is everything you would expect from first generation tools built using off-the-shelf parts, but the rate of improvement and innovation is the more important factor. These devices are following the path of Clayton Christianson’s disruptive innovation curve, the process of technological evolution where a new design or business model breaks up the existing state of affairs by opening up the market to new and different customers.

New services like Science Exchange are creating online marketplaces that give researchers simple ways to leverage resources and equipment, giving them access without the need for ownership. New community lab spaces like BioCurious in Sunnyvale, CA and Genspace in Brooklyn, NY are allowing researchers, regardless of experience level, to rent space at a reasonable rate.

All of these forces are combining to create a new economic reality. It’s now possible to pursue interesting ideas for much smaller amounts of money. The ability to do more with less means that researchers can find new and novel sources of funding, like accumulating lots of small donations via online crowdfunding sites. Websites like Kickstarter and Experiment are increasingly being used by researchers to fund their work, with the average fundraise on Experiment being $5,427. This may seem like small science compared to larger grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health, but it adds up, especially if you’re working outside the line.

Taken together, these forces are changing what can be done, but they’re also changing who can do them. It’s breaking science out of the ivory tower.

The Myth of Amateurism

The idea of science as a profession is a relatively recent development. You don’t have to go far back in the history of science to find its roots as an amateur pursuit. By definition, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin were amateurs, pursuing knowledge for it’s own sake.

With the rise of professional science, amateur science did not go away, it just went unnoticed. Many people are familiar with the concept of citizen science — non-professionals contributing to ongoing research. But far fewer people realize how fast citizen science has evolved as a method and strategy for scientific research. It is way beyond just birders and backyard astronomers.

Over the past few years, a body of research has emerged that shows the enormous potential for engaging non-professionals in the process of discovery. From the invisible prevalence of citizen-collected data in ornithology to the astounding effectiveness of protein-folding video games, technology is helping to make this type of amateur participation easier and more reliable. It’s also helping to build public trust in science.

So far, however, the popularization of amateur participation has ignored the most important effect of all: these lower barriers to participation means young scientists can seek out alternative career paths and models. It’s also allowing researchers from different fields to experiment and explore outside of their core discipline. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating more opportunities for researchers in the developing world. Basically, it’s room for more ideas from young and new minds to ask different questions. In a world where important research can be held back by the establishment, this type of freedom can be the basis for the next big discovery.

In the short term, science moves forward — creating knowledge and getting to better questions — by creative leaps. It’s a process driven by chance, genius, and zeitgeist. In the long term, science progresses with meta-level changes to the scientific process. More specifically, it evolves through changes in technology and methods for cooperating and collaborating. Just as the invention of the printing press played a pivotal role in the original Scientific Revolution, the connectivity enabled by the internet is changing the nature of the scientific process again. We’re slowly moving the line.

Science wants to be open.