This summer, scientists, hackers, students, patients, and activists will convene to discuss the future of our science/technology paradigm. Topics include: Synthetic Biology, Gene Patents, Open Data, Open Access Publishing, Microfinance for Science, DIY Biology, Open Source Drug Discovery, Patent Pools, Patient Advocacy for Innovation, and more
Ready for a rapid, radical reboot of the global innovation system for a truly free and open 21st century knowledge economy? Join us at the first Open Science Summit, an attempt to gather all stakeholders who want to liberate our scientific and technological commons to enable an new era of decentralized, distributed innovation to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.
Those interested can register at opensciencesummit.com
Enlightenment 2.0: Unleashing the Open Science Revolution
Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson identifies two kinds of scientific revolutions, those driven by new concepts (theoretical), and those driven by new tools (technological).
In the last 500 years we’ve witnessed paradigm shattering conceptual shifts associated with names such as Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and, Einstein. Simultaneously, the evolution of technology drives progress in unpredictable ways—Galileo borrowed principles from the technology of eye-glasses to pioneer the use of the telescope in astronomy, while Watson and Crick relied on Rosalind Franklin’s skill with X-ray diffraction (a tool from physics) to probe the structure of life. (Undoubtedly, Franklin’s contribution would have been more fully recognized under a true Open Science Paradigm.)
To this classification of scientific revolutions, we can now add a third kind, an Organizational Revolution, the advent of a truly “Open Science,” which will profoundly affect the pace and character of subsequent theory and tool-driven paradigm shifts.
The 21st century is off to a rocky start, and as economic and ecological crises converge, there is no shortage of dire predictions. On the other hand, politicians and pundits point to the expectation that Science and Technology will let humanity invent its way out of the problems we’ve created. This rosy outlook ignores a deep crisis that has been brewing and could hamstring our innovative capacity when we most urgently need it.
Despite nostalgic myths that Science is the realm of open inquiry, reasoned debate, and the pursuit of objective truth, it has always been politicized, though never to the dangerous degree attained just in the past decade. The viciousness of the fight over embryonic stem cell research, the conflict over creationism, and the politics of climate change are unprecedented new lows. Public confidence in science and technology is deeply shaken, as the outcry over genetically modified organisms attests. When biotechnology, the veritable “toolkit of life,” that could feed the hungry, heal the ill, and fuel the economy without despoiling the environment, is greeted with suspicion and downright hostility, we must acknowledge a deep failure. Citizens and consumers correctly worry that science has sold them out, as companies compromise safety and engineering standards in the dash to control the marketplace.
Beginning in the mid 1980’s a few judicial decisions, with no public or policy deliberation whatsoever, opened the floodgates to an exponential expansion in the filing of patents covering new subject matter and technologies that were never anticipated in the industrial age during which the system evolved. Indeed, there is a growing consensus that the unchecked proliferation of intellectual property rights is perversely out of touch with, and downright inimical to, the collaborative, cumulative, and interdependent essence of innovation in the 21st century’s networked knowledge economy. As the global economy struggles to find a new equilibrium after the financial meltdown, it is indisputable that old business models are unsustainable—this applies equally, indeed, especially, to technology and biomedicine, where cycles of over-hype, under-deliver, bubble then bust, have failed to produce cures for desperate, disappointed, and now disillusioned patients, bold proclamations of a “War on Cancer,” notwithstanding.
In the last ten years, a collection of burgeoning movements has begun the herculean task of overhauling the outmoded institutions and worldviews that make up our global scientific governance system. Proponents of the Access to Knowledge movement (A2K) have united around the principle that data and knowledge are “anti-rivalrous,” the value of information increases as it spreads. Open Access Journals have demonstrated a new path for publishing that utilizes the power of the internet to instantly distribute ideas instead of imposing artificial scarcity to prop up old business models. “Health 2.0” entrepreneurs are seeking to apply the lessons of e-commerce to empower patients. However, these different efforts are each working on a piece of a problem without a view of the whole. It is not sufficient or realistic to tweak one component of the innovation system (eg, patent policy) and assume the others stay static. Instead, dynamic, interactive, nonlinear change is unfolding. The Open Science Summit is the first and only event to consider what happens throughout the entire innovation chain as reform in one area influences the prospects in others. In the best case scenario, a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing shifts toward transparency and collaboration could unleash hitherto untapped reserves of human ingenuity.
Imagine a vastly accelerated research, development, and commercialization cycle using an entire Open Innovation process from start to finish. In both commercial and academic labs, scientists would log results using Open Protocols such as Open Wetware. In the next stage, scientists submit to Open Access journals—but the process of peer review would be ongoing as “real time publication” allowed researchers to transform results into a publication along a continuum that ranged from initial reports to rough drafts to final submissions. A paper would never be “finished” as critique and response would be ongoing long after publication. New, sophisticated reputation “feedback” algorithms (like those powering Ebay or Amazon but optimized for science), supplant the old static journal model. This is already emerging to a limited extent with tentative forays into social networking software for science and post publication commentary experiments such as PLoS One. Young post-docs, instead of laboring under a stultifying grant system that rewards conservatism and incrementalism, pitting researchers against each other for an artificially limited number of spots, could simultaneously compete and collaborate with others around the globe, using platforms such as that being developed by India’s Open Source Drug Discovery Foundation. In the past, science has been said to advance one funeral at a time, but we can no longer afford to wait for generational replacement. Work done on open source projects would allow young researchers to build prestige, without regard to traditional hierarchy. Open Innovation prizes, offering cash and other rewards for solutions to problems ranging from cancer to aging, would spur progress and provide further incentives. New “micro-finance” platforms for research would enable patients and philanthropies to more efficiently direct funds to projects that slip through the cracks of the current system while also routing around “chokepoints” such as the NIH which can become a “single point of failure” in science funding (see Bush/stem cells).
Next, research tools would be widely shared and disseminated, not hidden behind industrial secrecy or priced out of reach via an exclusive license. Platform “enabling technologies” in some of the world’s most important fields would be maintained as a “protected commons.” Stem cell lines or vectors to be used in gene therapy are prime examples of technologies where collective innovation to create an “Open Standard” would clearly benefit all interested parties, especially patients desperately awaiting cures. The widespread penetration of these “upstream” technologies would utterly transform the landscape of the biotechnology industry, disrupting concentrations of power that have accumulated over the past few decades and allowing entire ecologies of enterprise to spring up, colonizing a “long-tail” of niches that multi-nationals neglect in the pursuit of only the highest margin returns. Once standard, non-proprietary biotech packages are available, in principle, launching a biotech startup could come to more closely resemble the process of starting an IT company to make web apps today.
In this revitalized context, as technologies approached commercialization stage, a variety of business models would be available using non-exclusive licensing and Open Source inspired agreements where appropriate, or allowing royalty free use for “neglected” diseases, crops, etc. Whatever model a particular company pursued would depend on its particular sector of the life sciences (diagnostics, vaccines, drug discovery, plant breeding, etc)… the point is that there are a huge range of alternative organizational models that have remained unexplored.
Finally, regulatory reform would create transparency in clinical trials, shifting the funding model to prevent conflicts of interest and ensuring the data was publicly available for all to see. Profits would not come at the expense of patients.
Now look at reality. Without massive coordinated effort we shall surely fail to achieve a Free and Open Science and Technology Paradigm. The vision sketched here needs to come about within the next decade if humanity is to make any progress against our interrelated great challenges—Energy, Climate, Health, Food Security, and Poverty. By 2020 there must be a distributed, global network of institutions participating in the governance of Science and Technology. I hope you share our excitement for this unique instant in history when it is finally possible for mankind, a species distinguished and defined by its capacity to use tools, to unleash the unlimited problem solving powers of the tool of tools, science.