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Monday, June 22, 2009

4 Freedoms of Research

I'm going to venture off the beaten track for a few minutes. Ever since the discussion about conference blogging started to take off, I've been thinking about what the rights of scientists really are - and then came to the conclusion that there really aren't any. There is no scientist's manifesto or equivalent oath that scientists take upon receiving their degree. We don't wear the iron ring like engineers, which signifies our commitment to integrity...

So, I figured I should do my little part to fix that. I'd like to propose the following 4 basic freedoms to research, without which science can not flourish.
  1. Freedom to explore new areas
  2. Freedom to share your results
  3. Freedom to access findings from other scientists
  4. Freedom to verify findings from other scientists
Broadly, these rights should be self evident. They are tightly intermingled, and can not be separated from each other:
  • The right to explore new ideas depends on us being able to trust and verify the results of experiments upon which our exploration is based.
  • The right to share information is contingent upon other groups being able to access those results.
  • The purpose of exploring new research opportunities is to share those results with people who can use them to build upon them
  • Being able to verify findings from other groups requires that we have access to their results.
In fact, they are so tightly mingled, that they are a direct consequence of the scientific method itself.
  1. Ask a question that explores a new area
  2. Use your prior knowledge, or access the literature to make a best guess as to what the answer is
  3. Test your result and confirm/verify if your guess matches the outcome
  4. share your results with the community.
(I liked the phrasing on this site) Of course if your question in step 1 is not new, you're performing the verification step.

There are constraints on what we are allowed to do as scientists as well, we have to respect the ethics of the field in which we do our exploring, and we have to respect the fact that ultimately we are responsible to report to the people who fund the work.

However, that's where we start to see problems. To the best of my knowledge, funding sources define the directions science is able to explore. We saw the U.S. restrict funding to science in order to throttle research in various fields (violating Research Freedom #1) for the past 8 years, which was effectively able to completely halt stem cell research, and suppress alternative fuel sources, etc. In the long term, this technique won't work, because the scientists migrate to where the funding is. As the U.S. restores funding to these areas, the science is returning. Unfortunately, it's Canada's turn, with the conservative government (featuring a science minister who doesn't believe in evolution) removing all funding from genomics research. The cycle of ignorance continues.

Moving along, and clearly in a related vein, Freedom #2 is also a problem of funding. Researchers who would like to verify other group's findings (a key responsibility of the basic peer-review process) aren't funded to do this type of work. While admitting my lack of exposure to granting committees, I've never heard of a grant being given to verify someone else's findings. However, this is the basic way by which the scientists are held accountable. If no one can repeat your work, you will have many questions to answer - and yet the funding for ensuring accountability is rarely present.

The real threat to an open scientific community occurs with the last two Freedoms: sharing and access. If we're unable to discuss the developments in our field, or are not even able to gain information on the latest work done, then science will come grinding to a major halt. We'll waste all of our time and money exploring areas that have been exhaustively covered, or worse yet, come to the wrong conclusions about what areas are worth exploring in our ignorance of what's really going on.

Ironically, Freedoms 3 and 4 are the most eroded in the scientific community today. Even considering only the academic world, where freedoms are taken for granted our interaction with the forums for sharing (and accessing) information are horribly stunted:
  • We do not routinely share negative results (causing unnecessary duplication and wasting resources)
  • We must pay to have our results shared in journals (limiting what can be shared)
  • We must pay to access other scientists results in journals (limiting what can be accessed)
It's trivial to think of other examples of how these two freedoms are being eroded. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to think of how to restore these basic rights to science, although there are a few things we can all do to encourage collaboration and sharing of information:
  • Build open source scientific software and collaborate to improve it - reducing duplication of effort
  • Publish in open access journals to help disseminate knowledge and bring down the barriers to access
  • Maintain blogs to help disseminate knowledge that is not publishable
If all scientists took advantage of these tools and opportunities to further collaborative research, I think we'd find a shift away from conferences towards online collaboration and the development of tools favoring faster and more efficient communication. This, in turn, would provide a significant speed up in the generation of ideas and technologies, leading to more efficient and productive research - something I believe all scientists would like to achieve.

To close, I'd like to propose a hypothesis of my own:
By guaranteeing the four freedoms of research, we will be able to accomplish higher quality research, more efficient use of resources and more frequent breakthroughs in science.
Now, all I need to do is to get someone to fund the research to prove this, but first, I'll have to see what I can find in the literature...

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Canada's Government is pulling the carpet from Genomics.

Canada's conservative party, which currently controls the parliament, has decided that it wont fund genomics research any more. They seem to have decided that the $140 Million that it takes to power Canada's genome centres is too much, although they don't have a problem pouring in over a billion and a half into building upgrades. Wow. Just... wow.

I have never been as impressed with the shortsightedness of the conservatives. Yes, it's great to have a nice shiny genomics building, but when there's no money to operate the machinery, that's just sad. Considering the work that's being done in Canada with the new genomics technology, that's like deciding that all electronics after the invention of the lightbulb is superfluous. Great job guys. Genome Canada, through Genome BC has played a large part in the work I do on breast cancer, on ChIP-Seq work... etc.

Anyhow, this sudden disbelief in science from the government has me wondering what the future has in store for science research in Canada. In the next two years I'll be leaving the happy confines of the Genome Sciences Centre with a nifty doctorate and my hope was that I'll be able to stay in Vancouver (ideally), or at least in Canada to do a post-doc or something genomics related. Unfortunately, the biggest agency helping to get this type of research off the ground was Genome Canada and it's affiliates. Now that they've had a $140 Million/year budget pulled out from under them, I'm guessing it's pretty darn unlikely.

This means we'll be dropping funding for age related diseases, cancers, promising new pharmaceutical technologies.... ok, I'm not going to list it out. I sure hope that the Government knows what it's doing, because all I see in the future is another move... and this time it'll probably be south of the border.

Well, either that or I go back to school for another two years and learn carpentry to help build the empty buildings on campus.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Reject Bill C-61.

I was passed a link today (thanks Obi!) that I think is worth passing along to any Canadians who read my blog.

Canadian Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced a bill (Bill C-61), which would basically shut down Canada's IT sector in terms of small start-ups ability to innovate, erode away most of the consumers rights to use the media and content they own, and introduce an even more strict version of the dreaded DMCA (Digitial Millenium Copyright Act). I highly suggest that every Canadian tell the government how unwanted that legislation is. (I certainly won't be voting for any party that makes it illegal to listen to music I've purchased on my own MP3 player.)

This link gives you a template letter that you can just send along to your MP, but also provides you the opportunity to edit the letter if you'd like. Here's my version:


June 24, 2008

The Honourable Hedy Fry
House of Commons
Parliament Buildings
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6

These recipients will be CC'd on your email:
The Honourable Jim Prentice P.C, M.P.
5th floor, West Tower
C.D. Howe Building
235 Queen St.
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0H5

The Honourable Josée Verner, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Canadian Heritage
25 Eddy Street
Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0M5

Subject: Please Stand Against the New Copyright Bill

Dear Madam,

I'm a constituent who has been following recent developments in Canadian copyright law. As a worker in the high-tech/biotech sector, I'm concerned about the terrible economic cost such a bill would have on Canadian innovation, research and competitive ability to thrive in the knowledge based economy. Poorly crafted bills such as this are on the slippery slope towards "respecting intellectual property" such as Microsoft's patent for a single mouse click - which, if enforced, would prevent any non-Microsoft customers from being unable to use their computer without paying a Microsoft tax.

The American DMCA legislation has been throughly criticized by many leading innovators in the software industry and in other IT based sectors for it's ability to be exploited for commercial gain at the expense of the consumer. To enact legislation such as that outlined in the Copyright bill (C-61) presented by the government on June 12th would go far further in eroding consumer rights, and outlaw the lawful use of copyrighted material. It does not take into account the needs of consumers and Canada's creative community who are exploiting the potential of digital technology. Like many other Canadians, I'm disappointed that this bill adopts an American approach to digital copyright laws, instead of crafting a Canadian approach.

Copyright laws were designed to strike a balance between the needs of the consumer, and those producing content. When the content producers are able to restrict the rights of the ordinary consumer, such as preventing a user from unlocking their own cell phone, or copying the contents of purchased DVDs for use in video iPods, then the purposed of copyright is no longer being served.

The current bill outlaws the currently legal practices above. This bill paves the road to importing the consumer file-sharing lawsuit strategy that has failed so spectacularly in the United States. Canada deserves better.

Please ensure that C-61 really is made for Canadians by allowing all Canadian stakeholders a say in its final contents. That means meaningful consultation in the coming months, and opening up Canada's copyright policy to more than just the special interests that lobbied behind the scenes for this law. As my MP, I urge you to represent my interests in the copyright debate.


Anthony Fejes