Opening up science and health
Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director
15 June 2011
We may be seeing both a top down and a bottom up approach to open science. Major global projects such as mapping the human genome on the one hand and individual health hackers conducting experiments on themselves at the other are bringing greater collaboration and openness: and new findings. We may all benefit as a result.
What is changing?
Companies such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Nestle Corporate have adopted open innovation in response to growing competitive pressures. As a result, they can bring new knowledge and expertise from outside the company into the research and innovation process, thus enabling not only greater levels of innovation, but increased speed of response.In January 2011, the UN Secretary-General announced a new sustainability programme. 54 global companies are signatories and have agreed to share their research data and findings on sustainability, in line with principles of the Global Compact LEAD.Open science per se is also emerging, although hesitantly. The Human Genome Project, and the resulting GenBank storing the outputs, was a prime example of a collaborative open science project with a very focused aim: to map the human genome. A renowned mathematician ‘solved’ a significant issue by posting it on his blog, generating discussion and finding a solution to the question: Is massively collaborative mathematics possible? He described the process of these discussions relative to the normal process of science as being like driving is to pushing a car in terms of the speed, depth and range of contribution. Other open science experiments have, however, faltered.
Citizen science is another form of open science. Thousands of individuals already ‘donate’ PC downtime to science processing projects. Health hackers, individuals willing and able to ‘experiment’ on themselves are taking open science one step further. Some are using a combination of self-interest, cheap genetic profiles and the mass of information on the internet to conduct small scale, personal experiments – then sharing the results for others to add to. The website Genomera aims to enable such ventures. Other health hackers are enhancing themselves by inserting electronic devices into their bodies.
The Kansas Bioscience Authority has recently established the National Centre of Animal Health Innovation, bringing together nine animal health companies, regional universities and government agencies to enhance new product development and research and create jobs.
Why is this important?
Open science is struggling, because the current ‘reward system’ of publish or be damned, and therefore the need (and desire) to hang on to data as long as possible as a result, militate strongly against openness on a grand scale. Recognition, rewards, jobs and research grants tend to follow publication. Without significant changes to the system, truly open science will not succeed; and we will lose the potential benefits.The challenges facing us, such as climate change and the eradication of killer diseases, are such that we need international, collaborative approaches; no single organisation or approach will find solutions. Those solutions often require radically new perspectives: genuinely open collaboration, bringing different disciplines together can often enable that process. At the same time, the convergence and integration of different disciplines such as biology and electronics, is part of the development of the solutions and requires multidisciplinary collaboration. New tools are further enabling new approaches. Lab on a chip tests can provide almost instant results; we already have relatively cheap, if incomplete personal genomes- in the long term, we will have the more complex version – the cheap personal proteome; soon we will have real-time monitoring of health through smart homes, enabling the collection of massive amounts of data about health and illness; collaboration is an increasingly significant aspect of daily and corporate life, especially among those who have grown up with the transparency of social networking. We are likely to see more bottom-up, open citizen science challenging conventional approaches.All these changes and many more enhance the ability to work collaboratively and remotely, to share information and ideas globally. Just as business process innovation is often regarded as more significant than product innovation, so too perhaps it is time radically to overhaul the science and innovation systems for the benefit of all.