My thoughts for "Imagining Tomorrow's University"

So I've been invited to Imagining Tomorrow's University, and they have this series of questions they'd like me to answer.

(Note that you can follow the conversation at #TomorrowsUni on Twitter.)


Conveniently I already answered many of these questions in my "What is Open Science?" blog post. I've copy/pasted from that for the first two answers.


Q: What is your two sentence definition of open science (or open research)?

A: Open science is the philosophical perspective that sharing is good and that barriers to sharing should be lowered as much as possible. The practice of open science is concerned with the details of how to lower or erase the technical, social, and cultural barriers to sharing.


Q: Why is open science important for transforming research and learning?

A: The potential value of open science should be immediately obvious: easier and faster access to ideas, methods, and data should drive science forward faster! But open science can also aid with reproducibility and replication, decrease the effects of economic inequality in the sciences by liberating ideas from subscription paywalls, and provide reusable materials for teaching and training.


Q: How can open science increase the societal impact of university research?

A: I have two answers.

first, if open science accelerates research progress, then that increases the societal impact intrinsically.

second, serendipity will strike. Most of my "wins" from open science have been unexpected - people using our research products in ways I never could have predicted or intended. This is really only possible if those research products are made fully available.


Q: How is open science part of, and important for your own research, teaching, and service agendas?

A: I think it's philosophically central to my view of how research should work. In that sense, it's integral to our research agenda, and it increases the impacts of our research and teaching. For service, I'm not sure what to say, although I prefer to donate my time to open organizations.


Q: What are the important activities, structures, etc. that have supported you in pursuing open science?

A: If I had to pick one, it would be the Moore Foundation. Without question, the Moore Foundation Data Driven Discovery Investigator award (links here) validate my decision to do open science in the past, and in turn gives me the freedom to try new things in the future.

I think blogging and Twitter have been integral to my pursuit of open science, my development of perspectives, and my discovery of a community of thought and practice around open science.


Q: What are the major technical, organizational, social, or cultural challenges you face, particularly as related to openness and sharing within your university and academia?

A: While most scientists are supportive of open science in theory, in fact most scientists are leery of actually sharing things widely before publication. This is disappointing but understandable in light of the incentive systems in place.

At my Assistant Professor job, I received a lot of administrator pushback on the time I was expending on open science, and this even made its way into a tenure letter. That having been said, in publication and funding reviews, I've received nothing but positive comments, so I think that's more important than what my administrative chain says. My colleagues have been nothing but supportive (see above, "theory" vs "practice".)


Q: If you had a senior leadership role in a university, what would you do to promote change and improve your university?

A: I'm not convinced there's anything that can be done by a university leader. University leadership is largely irrelevant to the daily practice of research, teaching, and service, in my experience. (I think university leadership is very important in facilitating a good environment at their institution, so they're not useless at all; they just don't have anything to do with my research directly, and nor should they.)

I think we need community leaders to effect change, and by community leaders I mean research leaders (senior folk with strong research careers - members of the National Academy, Nobel laureates, etc.). These folk need to visibly and loudly abandon the broken "journal prestige" system, forcefully push back against university administration on matters of research evaluation and tenure, and be a loud presence on grant panels and editorial boards.

The other thing we need is more open science practice. I feel like too much time is spent talking about how wonderful open science would be if we could just mandate foo bar and baz, and not enough time is spent actually doing science. Conveniently, Bjorn Brembs has written up this problem in detail.


Q: What $10M or more, risky and potentially transformative, big idea research proposal would you be writing if you had the right open science resources, and institutional support?

A: What a coincidence! I happen to have written something up here, What about all those genes of unknown function?. But it would cost $50m. One particularly relevant bit:

More importantly, I'd insist on pre-publication sharing of all the data within a walled garden of all the grantees, together with regular meetings at which all the grad students and postdocs could mix to talk about how to make use of the data. (This is an approach that Sage Biosciences has been pioneering for biomedical research.) I'd probably also try to fund one or two groups to facilitate the data storage and analysis -- maybe at $250k a year or so? -- so that all of the technical details could be dealt with.

But, while this approach could have massive impact on biology, I can answer the question a different way, too: what would I do with $10m if it landed in my lap?

I'd probably try to build something like Manylabs. I was pretty inspired by the environment there during a recent visit, and I think it could translate into a slightly more academic setting easily. I envision an institute that combines open space for brainstorming, collaboration, and networking, with regular short-term training events (a la Software & Data Carpentry) and long-term data science fellows (a la the Moore/Sloan Data Science Environments) while providing grants for a bunch of sabbatical folk. I'd park it in downtown Davis (good coffee, beer, food, bicycling), fill it with interesting people, and stir well.

However, let's be honest -- $10m isn't enough to effect real change in our university system, and in any case my experience with big grants is you have to over-promise in order to get the necessary funding. (There are one or two exceptions to this, but it's a pretty good rule ;).

If you wanted me to effect interesting change on the university level, I'd need about $10m a year for 10 years to run an incubator institute as a proof of concept. And given $1 bn/10 years to spend, I think we could do something really interesting by building a decentralized university for teaching and research. Happy to chat...


I have more to say but maybe I'll save it for the post-event blogging :)

--titus

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