Wed 15 February 2017
C. Titus Brown
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
Conveniently I already answered many of these questions in my
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 :)