The future of science, gradical change, and tools for the people
August 8, 2008 14 Comments
Maybe you’ve felt it – the buzz in a room, the tension in the air, the accelerating pace at which people are connecting and the realization that we’re all in this together, even if we don’t quite know what “this” is. At least in my small pocket of the world (wide web), something is brewing.
That something is The Future of Science. Michael Nielsen has written about this at length in preparation for his forthcoming book of the same name, with a lively discussion in the comments following. At BioBarCamp this past weekend (many thanks to John Cumbers and Attila Csordas for organizing!), the future of science became a recurring theme, with an impromptu discussion on open science the first day and spirited sessions on open science, web 2.0, the data commons, change in science, science “worship”, and redefining “impact” and “failure” the second. Each of these topics could be their own blog series, and, in fact, many of them are. Even if people didn’t always agree on the details, it was clear that everyone there (a biased group, inarguably) agreed that change is necessary, and inevitable. The question is, what will that change look like, and how will we get there?
The creators of Labmeeting.com put forth the following thesis:
Science relies on trust. Trust only remains intact when change occurs through consensus. Change through consensus is inherently gradual. (Therefore change in science must be gradual to succeed.)
Though you could agree or disagree with each statement, there are two things I’d like to discuss in particular. One is the issue of trust. Science relies on trust, right? I would say instead that science could be built on trust, if people weren’t so worried about it! The most popular argument made against radical openness in science is based on the fear that other people will not act in good faith, i.e. if you make your lab notebook public, you could get scooped. And yet it is exactly this current climate of secrecy and cutthroat competition that encourages scooping and offers little recourse when it happens. If all research were open, digital, and timestamped, there would be an indisputable record of work and ideas that could be used to argue precedence.
Of course, this all starts to sound a little chicken and egg after a while. How do we assuage the fear of scooping enough for things to get sufficiently open so that scooping really isn’t a problem? This brings us to the next point – that change must be gradual. Let me add the session leaders’ conclusion to this: “the first step is to create incentives for scientists to voluntarily start doing the same everyday things on the same web platform.” I think this is a valuable statement to keep in mind as more and more web 2.0 tools and platforms keep cropping up – that in some sense, the best way to enact satisfied change is to make it beneficial to the individual researcher, and allow them to discover this on their own terms. Scientists are a skeptical lot by training; the fact that they are also generally time-strapped and resource-starved makes them, ironically, reluctant to experiment, at least with the way they do their work. They neither need, nor want, another social networking tool.
The key that some groups have discovered (Labmeeting, Epernicus, and OpenWetWare among them) is to discover what people need, and then build something they will want. For Labmeeting, it is online paper management, for Epernicus it is effective question answering and resource finding (no more wild goose chases looking for someone who can help you with a specific problem), and for OWW it is tools for managing group websites and sharing protocols. Although Epernicus does rely on there being a social/professional network in place, the other two provide services that are useful even if you’re the only one using it; the online community therefore can build itself without pressure. And Epernicus along with the others recognizes that in order to be successful among scientists, you need to provide them with something useful. In other words, you need to make tools for the people, rather than tools that need people.
So what about change? How will it happen and when? Well, I’m hoping Michael’s book will tell us. ;) But I have a feeling it will be “gradical” – gradual at first, and then…