Open science


I've nearly finished the book The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford1. It's a very involving book, and beautifully written. Francis Spufford manages to explain some rather complex concepts in a simple and engaging way, without 'dumbing down', and he captures the characters of the people involved very well.

The chapter on the British Rocket programme ('Flying Spitfires to Other Planets') was very interesting, and I won't quickly get rid of the image of Ray Dommett — one of the main people involved in Britain's nuclear defence programme — taking part in Morris dancing in his spare time:

Another of the rocketmen I talked to spotted him by chance in Bristol. 'These Morris men came dancing up the street, led by this big fat bloke in a kind of Andy Pandy outfit who was bopping people on the head with a pig's bladder — and I said to my wife, "Sweetheart, you won't believe me, but that man is one of the brains behind Britain's nuclear defence."'

I also liked the chapter on the Human Genome Project, 'The Gift'. It's also an important story. For those who don't know the background, in 1998, a consortium in the US (later to be called Celera) fronted by Craig Venter announced that they would be forming a private company to take over the sequencing of the whole of the human genome — a task that had been started by various labs funded by the National Institute of Health in the States and by the Medical Research Council and The Wellcome Trust in the UK. They were going to throw huge resources at it, and aimed to finish the sequence two years or so earlier than the projected public effort completion date. The real stinger was that they weren't going to make the results freely available to scientists, but to charge a subscription fee for access to the database.

This didn't sit at all well with many scientists. Not only did it seem, well — just plain immoral to have the most fundamental fact about us as a species under the control of a private company, it was also likely to be very damaging to the progress of science. As individual scientists, our progress tends to be measured in nanometres, but it's when we find links between our own work and those of others that things start to move along a bit. Out of necessity, we study biology in neatly defined and bounded boxes, but life itself tends to sprawl messily over the borders. So it wasn't just about the money; if we couldn't easily make connections with other scientists working in other areas, we would be severely hampered. Those with access to the Celera database would be under a contractual obligation not to divulge the information to those who were not subscribed.

Thankfully, things turned out rather well. A group of dissenters, lead by John Sulston and Michael Morgan, stepped up their own public access efforts, funded very generously by the Wellcome Trust in the UK. They managed to keep pace with Celera, and by releasing their chunks of completed sequence each day they made the data produced by Celera commercially worthless. Looking back, it seems as if this was an important turning point, not only because of the importance of sequencing the human genome, but also because it made clear the dangers of the increasing commercialisation of science.

There has been a slow but steady rise in the number of voices supporting the 'open sourcing' of science. The Open Access movement is gaining ground, and we now have an Open Access and freely distributable journal, Public Library of Science (PLoS). The Creative Commons organisation has recently launched Science Commons to make it easier for scientists to allow public access to their work, while maintaining some control over it. It could have easily gone the other way.

1 Thanks to John for the excellent recommendation.

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