Tag Archives: Open Science

Introduction to Open-Science Panel Discussion at the 2012 National eXtension Conference

MicroscopeNote: This is the preface I wrote to kick off the “Open Science and the Future of Cooperative Extension” panel discussion, which was held Tuesday, Oct. 2 at the National eXtension Conference in Oklahoma City.  Hopefully, it does an adequate job framing open science and it’s implications for the future of Cooperative Extension work.

Extension educators and professionals intuitively understand that we will be called upon to build new models to compete and survive in this new communication and economic order.

The question remains: What should these models be and how should they function?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers. 

Several years ago, Gowers set out to solve what seemed to be an intractably difficult math problem by crowdsourcing it.

Much to Gower’s surprise, the problem was solved in a matter of weeks through this collaborative effort —and not exclusively by Oxbridge- and Ivy League-trained mathematicians.  Many people with varying levels of training and academic perspective weighed in with insights that ultimately helped solve the problem.

Gowers dubbed this the Polymath Project, an undertaking that produced a whole series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers and publications under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

Yet, the effort kick-started something that in historical terms may be even more significant: The open-science movement.

The potential of open-science already has been foreshadowed in other areas of science, notably the human genome project, the culmination of a series of pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Yet, this only scratches the surface:  Many of the most impressive strides have occurred in the computer industry.

What we’re arguably discovering is that science is no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life. With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, it is now possible for of the research that once required heavily funded research departments to be considerably scaled down.

The economic downturn as certainly contributed its share too.  Proponents of open science contend that this new scaled down approach to research may prove a more cost-effective alternative to conventional scientific discovery as many governments around the world slash conventional research funding.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound. Arguably, we have been involved in open science form the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we have done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, would steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it. 

Real research, they would contend, is not possible without the conventional methods of inquiry that have character science for centuries.   

That’s the purpose of this discussion today: to sort all of this out — to try and take the first steps to fleshing out Extension’s place in this new order.

How should Extension function within this new free-wheeling information order? 

How do we balance older, conventional forms of scientific inquiry and reporting with the emerging values of open science?

To what extent should we embrace this new order?  If we opt for a full embrace, how will this be reflected over time in our defining principals and organizational structure?

The Two Critical Concepts of the 21st Century: Generative Capacity and Collaboration

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project has inspired calls for a more open, collaborative scientific model.

Okay, pardon this passionate outburst but I want to reaffirm something — something I’ve banged on about ad nauseam for the past couple of years: the absolutely indispensable influences generative capacity and collaboration will play in our future.

An article I devoured earlier this morning confirms why these two concepts will likely provide the standard on which public and private entities alike will rise and fall within the 21st century knowledge economy.

Oh, and pardon the unwieldy term “generative capacity.” I simply can’t come up with anything that better describes what will likely be one of the two principal preoccupations for the foreseeable future. I owe Steven Johnson for this term.

Simply put, the massive sharing and social collaboration that has accompanied networking has enabled all forms of thinking, formal and informal alike, to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

Much like the 15th century Gutenberg Press, networking is changing all facets of how we develop and share knowledge.  Even science, the principal source of refined, formal knowledge, is proving to be no exception.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University Tim Gowers engineered a remarkable demonstration of the significance of generative capacity to scientific inquiry when he used his personal blog to solicit the help of people around the world in solving a highly complicated mathematical problem.

His effort, cleverly dubbed the Polymath Project, proceeded on the relatively straightforward premise that online tools can be used to enlist disparate brains into a temporary but greatly enhanced cognitive intelligence.

Within weeks Gowers’s problem was solved as mathematicians from sundry perspectives and with varying levels of expertise weighed in with insights.

Granted, not all of Gowers’s collaborative efforts have met with similar success, but his efforts have been successful enough to lead a number of observers to conclude that this networked approach to problem solving represents the future of science.

As the title of an Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal article aptly observed, “The new Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share” — or, in other words, collaborate.

In fact, that rather clever title underscores how these two factors, generative capacity and collaboration, will be inextricably linked in the future.   Borrowing the lyrics from that beloved Sinatra classic, “Love and Marriage,” what unfolds over the next few decades will only underscore that “you can’t have one without the other.”

Collaboration is the critical guarantee of generativeness (again, excuse my digression from standard English).  They work hand in hand.  Optimal generative capacity can only be ensured within open, fluid networks, which are secured only through optimal levels of collaboration.  One of the principal preoccupation of all knowledge providers in the future will be building fluid learning environments — platforms as I prefer to call them — that strive to secure the highest levels of collaboration and generative capacity.

For what it’s worth, I’m personally convinced that science will prove no exception.   Yes, there is resistance.  Proprietorship has been a defining characteristic of science for the last three centuries.  It will take years to divest scientists of the increasingly antiquated notion that writing for professionally refereed journal articles is more valuable to the future of human progress than open sharing of knowledge within extended networks.

Even so, the advent of a new, open and networked scientific model that ensures the fullest measure of generative capacity by securing optimal levels of collaboration is inevitable. As the WSJ article stresses, the immense potential of “discoveries not yet dreamt of” is simply too valuable to ignore.

Generative capacity lies at the heart of this immense potential, and as growing number of scientists will learn, it will only be secured through maximum levels of collaboration.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.