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Can Science Be Done Without Secrecy?


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Chances are you've come across the website Wikipedia in your daily online searches. It's a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and it certainly has a wealth of information on everything from the Australian cattle dog to Lady Gaga.

Now imagine a Wikipedia for science, a place where scientists and others can go to research topics outside their area of expertise, find links to cutting edge studies, edit, update content. Surprisingly, it's not a new idea, but efforts to create a Wikipedia devoted to science has failed in the past.

In fact, scientists as a group, they don't seem to have embraced online tools to collaborate and do science out in the open. Why, you ask? Well, that is the subject of my next guest's book, Dr. Michael Nielsen. He is a physicist and author of the book "Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science." And he joins us from Toronto, Canada. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MICHAEL NIELSEN: Thank you very much, Ira.

FLATOW: Why are scientists the last ones to get in on this?

NIELSEN: Well, it's kind of funny. I mean, they certainly helped bring us the Web back in the early '90s. Unfortunately, they're pretty bought into doing things in the standard way, the way they've done them for centuries, which is you do your work in the lab, you get all your results, you write them up in a paper and possibly several years later, it all appears for your colleagues to digest at that point.

And, you know, that's a great system if you're back in the 1600 or 1700s, but today we've got better tools, but people still haven't adopted them.

FLATOW: These are collaborative tools, right?

NIELSEN: Yeah, I mean, you can talk about sort of people collaborating together, sharing knowledge, maybe attacking problems out in the open, where you can bring in lots of different expertise from all over the world to maybe get a better handle on some of these problems.

FLATOW: Give us a flavor of how that might work. You have a couple examples. You have many examples in your book, but...

NIELSEN: Sure, so an example I really like a lot that kind of illustrates how different this is is over the past couple of years, a group of mathematicians, starting with a Cambridge mathematician, a fellow named Tim Gowers have started what they call the Polymath Project. And what they've been doing is using blogs and a wiki to attack difficult open research problems completely in the open, allowing anybody to contribute basically by posting their ideas in the comments section of these blogs and the wiki.

And they've actually been really tremendously successful at attacking some of these problems.

FLATOW: So they're sort of crowdsourcing the idea and waiting for people to help them find a solution?

NIELSEN: That's pretty much exactly what it is, yeah.

FLATOW: And how far can you apply this to other, let's say, disciplines outside of mathematics?

NIELSEN: Well, you know, to some extent it's an open question because not everybody's doing it, and so it's going to be really interesting to see. There have been, you know, all kinds of efforts in different fields - astronomy, genetics and many others - which have been at least sometimes very successful. But it's still very early days, and I think it remains to be seen just how far we'll get.

FLATOW: Well, we have a lot of people interested in science who listen to us. Maybe they'll call in or send us some ideas. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. We're talking with Michael Nielsen, author of "Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science."

Maybe you would like to use networked science, you have an idea, maybe you have used it and make some suggestions, how it might work for you. Is there a wiki, I mean, is the wiki for science the central place for people to go, or can they go to other kinds of groups that they might find more attractive?

NIELSEN: Well, it's funny actually. That's kind of a - in some ways, it's a bit of a sad story. A lot of scientists have tried starting wikis for science. One I happen to be very familiar with is a quantum computing wiki, that's my area of research.

And while a lot of people, researchers in the field were very excited by the idea of having the quantum computing wiki - certainly many I spoke to - that didn't necessarily mean they wanted to take the time themselves to go and contribute.

And so you had this funny situation where a lot of people think a resource would be really useful, but they're too busy doing other things - working on their papers and their grants - to want to contribute. So...

FLATOW: You called it a quiki(ph), right? That's a different...


NIELSEN: Yeah, that was actually - their name was quiki, for a quantum wiki.

FLATOW: That's good. So - but it didn't get traction, is what you're saying.

NIELSEN: No, it didn't get traction, and to be honest, you know, I thought it was actually really well-executed. So it's not like it failed because it wasn't well-done. I think it failed because people lacked the motivation to contribute.

FLATOW: Well, one of the major obstacles to open science, you say, is scientists being rewarded for publishing scientific papers. How do you change that culture?

NIELSEN: Yeah, so, I mean, I should say first of all that it's a terrific thing that they get rewarded. If you go back to the 17th century, scientists generally weren't rewarded much at all for sharing discoveries, and as a result, they conducted a lot of their research very, very secretively indeed.

So, you know, it's a good thing that we have this modern system, but we would like to change - I would certainly like to see a change to a new system where scientists are rewarded for sharing their ideas more broadly, for sharing data more broadly and for sharing their computer code more broadly.

Now, and getting how to do that, there's a lot of details. It's a complex question.

FLATOW: Yeah, let's go to Joe in Whitehall, Virginia. Hi, Joe.

JOE: Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?

JOE: Doing great. Listen, tell me, you're making it sound like a new concept, but isn't this the whole reason the Internet came to be, that it evolved from Arpanet back in the late '60s and early '70s? You're making it sound like a new thing.

NIELSEN: Sure, you're absolutely right, that if you go back to 1970 or so, at that stage, it was really almost a scientific research project, and it gradually grew through the '70s and '80s, mostly in academic institutions.

But I think what we've seen through the 1990s and the 2000s is that in fact the rest of our culture has caught up to the scientists and actually gone really a long way past them, things like the success of Wikipedia or the success of open-source software like Linux really have eclipsed in how they're using these tools the way scientists are using them. And so there's some catch-up for the scientific community to do at this point.

JOE: Ah, so there is. Well, well put.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, Joe.

JOE: Yes, sir.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get another phone call from Mitch in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Hi, Mitch.

MITCH: Hi, how's everybody doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

MITCH: This fits well, because my point was about - my understanding of scientific discovery, of research and development, is that it's funded by private businesses mostly, and so it's for-profit. And so if I am a business owner and I am going to be put $10 million into a new way to put stem cells in somebody's eye or, you know, whatever, I'm not going to want to share that with somebody because I'm doing that for my own profit.

And so, you need to have that network of millions of people, as Linux does, who are willing to put in their own time for the common good, and the culture of computer and technology is not the same as the culture of scientists. And so it's going to take time until that culture of research shifts to the openness of the technology industry.

FLATOW: Yeah, people willing to work for nothing.

NIELSEN: So let me come back on - you said that - you started by saying that most research is funded by companies. But actually, about $100 billion a year is spent of just public money on basic research. That's a lot of money, obviously. I mean, it's an absolutely astounding number of dollars to be spending on basic research.

And that money, presumably, is being spent in the public interest, and so I think you can make a pretty good case that publicly funded science should be open science.

Now, you can shift from that kind of basic public research to focus on more applied commercial research, as you suggest, as well. And so you might say, well, what happens there? And actually, what happens there is kind of interesting. To some extent I agree with you, there will continue to be a secretive culture within many companies, but there are some big companies - Eli Lilly is one, for example, who are interested in what they call open innovation models, wherein they actually give up some knowledge about their internal processes and their internal problems, and they try and recruit people from outside the company to help attack those problems.

So even some what you might think traditionally very secretive organizations are actually finding some benefits.

FLATOW: When you have an open society, you allow anybody to come in and take a look and I guess in a way become a peer reviewer, right? I mean, won't peer review change if billions of people are all out to look at the work and comment on it?

NIELSEN: It's a really interesting thought. You know, again, I think it's early days, but there are some interesting examples. I guess last year, there was a lot of talk about this so-called arsenic life publications. So some people found that maybe arsenic was being, you know, actually put into the DNA in living organisms, and there was a paper published in Science that got a huge amount of publicity. And actually, some online bloggers started to look in detail at this, particularly a person named Rosie Redfield, and they started to pull apart the paper with a lot of help from the community and comments from many, many different people. And I think it's fair to say that maybe that work has resulted in a lot of skepticism now about arsenic life.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Some examples that I can think of where, I think, gets across the idea of scientists, of citizen scientists. We've had examples - we've had people on the program who talked about, you know, crowdsourcing gene folding, right? People can see patterns better than computers. They can figure out maybe how gene molecules, I'm sorry, not genes, protein molecules fold a little bit better. There's something you talk about in your book called the Galaxy Zoo. I remember we talked about that also.

NIELSEN: Ah, right. So this is the - where they crowdsourcing galaxy classifications...


NIELSEN: ...that project you're talking about. Yeah. So what do you want to know, Ira?

FLATOW: No, I'm just saying that is this the kind of public science that you're talking about, getting people involved who may not be scientists, maybe citizen scientists, to help out scientists in their own project?

NIELSEN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, their - in Galaxy Zoo's case, they recruited a quarter of a million people who actually did, get this, 150 million galaxy classifications, which enables the astronomers who started the project to solve all kinds of interesting astronomical problems that they just couldn't do otherwise. You can't, as a scientist, sit down and do 150 million classifications at your desk. They'll just take too long.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is it - do you find that there is resistance to the way - to changing the way, the old way, of things being done? Are older scientists resistant to change and becoming part of this process?

NIELSEN: I'm not so sure I'd say resistance so much as it's just difficult to see how to cause a large-scale change. How do you get everybody simultaneously to adopt the new way of doing things? And so some people will kind of throw up their hands and say, well, it just can't be done. Probably the people actually get that the most from, scientists who are sort of in their mid-career. They're doing post docs or they're at the end of their graduate studies. And while they're subject to the system, they don't really feel like there's very much they can do to change it. When I talk to younger scientists, they're often very enthusiastic. And sometimes, when I talk to much more senior scientists, because they feel like they have some power to actually change the system, they can actually be quite enthusiastic.

FLATOW: Talking with Michael Nielsen, author of "Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Network Science" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's go to the phone lines. To David in Rochester, New York. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi. I think I am a good example of this with amateur archaeologists in North America. And years ago, I was interested in the archaeology of western New York here and started noticing these stone structures in the woods. And there were some local information that it was Native American. And with the birth of the Internet, all these people started to blog about how they were finding these things in the woods and how there's a connection with all these amateur archaeologists and the professional archaeologists are beginning to look into this. It's interesting how we all share this information and it's grown.

FLATOW: Hmm. Interesting. Michael?

NIELSEN: Yeah, it's a terrific example. It's not one I'd thought of actually before. I guess in my book I talk a little bit about some amateur birders who are doing some very similar kinds of things, and they use the Internet to keep in touch with one another and to keep track of what rare bird species they've seen nearby. So it's kind of a parallel example, I guess. There's a lot of similarities in how they're doing that.

FLATOW: Is there any fear here with being overwhelmed with participants, in people who may not be as knowledgeable, and having to weed through all that stuff that comes in?

NIELSEN: Sure. So there are certainly some difficulties and challenges that arise. You know, if you create - anytime you open up your system of producing information some more, you create, I guess, more potential for noise as well as signal. And so that's a serious point. And we're still discovering what that's going to mean. There have been some interesting examples of scientists making public announcements of, you know, potential discoveries on their blog. One blogger, for example, announced rumors that the Higgs boson had been found.

FLATOW: I remember that one.

NIELSEN: And then - yeah. It was a guy names Tomas Terico(ph), and, you know, he kind had to walk it back a few days later. But it wasn't until after the new scientists had published kind of his rumors, basically. And that's an unfortunate situation, and it's a bit of a problem.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Last question in the last minute I have. If the open science model was adopted, you say it will be the second time the process of scientific discovery changed in history. What would be the first one?

NIELSEN: Yeah. So I guess - I talk about the first and second open science revolutions.


NIELSEN: And so the first, who's going back to the 17th century, in the very early days of science, you had people like Galileo, often very reluctant to share their discoveries with the world. And it really was the adoption of the journal system, in fact, at the end of the 17th century that started to see scientists be a bit more forthcoming. And that is a wonderful thing, and it's, you know, just magnificent for our society if that happened. But today, we can do better. We have better tools for working together, better tools for constructing knowledge together. And so we need a second open science revolution that will see scientists and the public more broadly adopt these tools and use them really to their full potential.

FLATOW: And you think this is going to be a hugely powerful event.

NIELSEN: I do. I think - you know, when you look at the history of science, it's tempting to focus on thing - you know, big kind of scientific discoveries, the invention of the laser or, you know, the structure of DNA or things like that. But when you're actually talking about the tools which people use to construct knowledge itself, when you change those, that's incredibly powerful. It's a bit like, you know, what happened when the internal combustion engine was invented to transport. All of a sudden, you just completely changed the game across the board. And I think we're in that same kind of a transition, but not for transport, but rather for how we construct knowledge.

FLATOW: If you want to know more about it, you could read Michael Nielsen's new book, "Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science." Thank you for taking time to be with us today, Michael.

NIELSEN: Thank you so much, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about the earliest known evidence of dog domestication. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.