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Globe and Mail writer Andre Picard.
Globe and Mail writer Andre Picard.

ANDRÉ PICARD

In Montreal, a wee opening in the closed world of science research Add to ...

Is the accepted way of doing science bad for science?

That question is the driving force behind the bold new “Open Science” initiative at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

Currently, governments invest a lot of money in health research, almost all of it at universities and labs associated with teaching hospitals.

We expect scientists to discover stuff such as drugs and technology and then commercialize those findings so there is a return on investment on the public funds invested. In recent years, there has been tremendous pressure on scientists to demonstrate immediate and lucrative results, and enormous scorn when they don’t.

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But this “make it pay or don’t do it” philosophy is naive and counter-productive. There is an enormous gulf between basic science and commercial applications. Take neuroscience: The human brain, about 1,300 grams of spongy grey matter, consists of more than 100-billion neurons (or nerve cells). It is largely terra incognita.

Do we honestly expect scientists to, for example, come up with a new drug for Parkinson’s disease (something that hasn’t been done for 30 years) if they don’t know the basic biological basis for the disease? Somebody has to do the exploration, the grunt work. And their findings, combined with the findings of others, will eventually, hopefully, lead to solutions, including new drugs. The scientific method is about trying – and often failing – and trying again with a new approach.

Is the best way to nurture that process – to accelerate the accumulation of knowledge – to have individual researchers hoard their findings in the hope they will hit paydirt someday, or is it to share discoveries openly to spur others?

The Open Science philosophy holds that it is the latter. Open Science has four fundamental goals: 1) Transparency in experimental methodology and collection of data, 2) Public availability of scientific data, 3) Public accessibility and transparency and scientific communication, and 4) Using Web-based tools to facilitate collaboration.

This is very different from the current approach, in which institutions fiercely protect their “intellectual property” with patents, in which results are published in paywalled journals, and in which everything from the design of experiments to basic data such as source codes are kept secret.

While there is a real trend toward openness, many disincentives remain. The competition for research funding is fierce, so measures such as citations and patents are important for scientists’ careers, not to mention that there is not necessarily sufficient time or resources to do things such as post data on the Web.

These realities perpetuate “closed” science, even though it’s not really working. Despite all the hype and boosterism, universities and hospitals have generated very little income with patents. Most routinely lose money on their commercial forays. One of the few exceptions is the University of Florida, which made roughly $150-million (U.S.) from inventing Gatorade, which is not exactly a gift to the health of humanity. And publishing in paywalled journals then buying those journals at a tremendous price is a mug’s game.

At The Neuro, all findings will be patent-free and freely accessible to other scientists worldwide – making it the first academic institute in the world to fully embrace open science. The Neuro can afford this experiment thanks to a $20-million (Canadian) donation from the family of Larry Tanenbaum, the philanthropist and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. As a savvy businessman, he is convinced that openness will accelerate research and discovery. “What we are celebrating here today is the transformation of research, the removal of barriers, the breaking of silos and, most of all, the courage of researchers to put patients and progress ahead of all other considerations,” Mr. Tanenbaum said at Friday’s announcement.

Needless to say, there will be a study to determine if the Open Science approach is effective. Research, led by Richard Gold, a professor of law and human genetics at McGill University, will test two hypotheses: 1) Will the Open Science initiative attract new private partners to invest in The Neuro? 2) Will the Open Science approach draw companies to the Montreal area and lead to the creation of a local “knowledge hub”?

Surely, science has a greater value to society than merely producing the next drug or the next widget. And the scientific enterprise cannot be all about citations and patents. It has to be about people – and, ultimately, about helping people. In the long run, it’s hard to imagine how people will not benefit more from openness and sharing of knowledge than from secrecy and hoarding of findings.

What remains to be seen is if The Neuro, a relatively small research institute, can change the culture of science.

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