Tag Archives: 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?

Banishing the “Hick” Factor

Discussing the history of land-grant universities with Carolyn Whatley yesterday, I was reminded of a quote I mined recently from Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud. He pointed out in one chapter how unfavorably science and practical knowledge in general were viewed in Germany — where the humanities were almost universally regarded as sole hallmarks of high learning and culture — even while they were held in universally high regard in America and the other English-speaking countries.


Whereas in a country like England, or America, the sciences and the arts were, to a much greater extent, seen as two sides of the same coin, jointly forming the intellectual elite, this was much less true in nineteenth-century Germany. A good example is Max Planck, the physicist who (in 1900) discovered the quantum, the idea that all energy comes in very small packets, or quanta. Planck came from a very religious, somewhat academic family, and was himself an excellent pianist. Despite the fact that his discovery of the quantum rates as one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, in Planck’s own family the humanities were considered a superior form of knowledge to science. His cousin, the historian Max Lenz, would jokingly pun that scientists (Naturforsher) were in reality foresters (Naturforster) – or, as he would say, hicks.

This raises an interesting question: What role have land-grant universities and Cooperative Extenison played in elevating science and the practical arts to the same plane as the humanities?