A Call for Open Science

November 23, 2011 By Aminda

A TEDx Waterloo event featured a compelling call from physicist Michael Nielsen for scientists to embrace new tools for collaboration that will “enable discoveries to happen at the speed of Twitter.” Nielsen believes a cultural shift is required for scientists to embrace the internet as a means to expand their ability to solve the most challenging problems, thus accelerating science and amplifying collective intelligence. 

There are plenty of examples of success and Nielsen tells the story of the Polymath Project in which a researcher’s core problem was solved in only 37 days by 27 participants who collectively posted 800 comments. Despite such evidence of the potential of collaboration, there have also been notable failures. Like the Qwiki, a wiki designed to collect user generated content on quantum physics. The idea received a positive reception but ultimately, participants didn’t want to do the work.

Nielsen believes the answer lies in the current reward system. Scientists are not paid or rewarded for sharing data, rather they are trained to hoard code, ideas, even problem descriptions. A shift in culture and values making it part of a scientist’s job to share, is required to experience the potential scientific acceleration offered by the internet. Nielsen is optimistic. After all, he says, this type of shift has occurred before, when the invention of the modern printing press made it the norm for scientists to share their discoveries through printed journals.

Nielsen ended his talk with a challenge to the crowd to initiate this cultural shift, whether through getting involved in an open Science project, starting one or simply being generous in giving credit to and promoting the work of those who are open. Even those who are not professional scientists, he said, can work to create awareness of the issue of open science.

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