Mon, May 23, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Collective scientific research shaping our world

As funding dwindles, more scientists are collaborating on the Web — and inviting amateurs or colleagues from other disciplines to get involved. Is this the way forward for knowledge?

By Bobbie Johnson  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

For Timothy Gowers, it looked as if there was nothing in mathematics he couldn’t achieve. He held a prestigious professorship at Cambridge University; he had been a recipient of the Fields Medal, one of the highest honors in mathematics; he had even acted as a scientific consultant on Hollywood movies, yet there were a few complex mathematical problems that he had struggled to solve.

“In most cases, I just ran out of steam,” he said.

So one day he took one of these — finding a mathematical proof about the properties of multidimensional objects — and put his thoughts on his blog (www.gowers.wordpress.com). How would other people go about solving this conundrum? Would somebody else have any useful insights? Would mathematicians, notoriously competitive, be prepared to collaborate?

“It was an experiment,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to try.”

He called it the Polymath Project and it rapidly took on a life of its own. Within days, readers, including high-ranking academics, had chipped in vital pieces of information or new ideas. In just a few weeks, the number of contributors had reached more than 40 and a result was on the horizon. Since then, the joint effort has led to several papers published in journals under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath. It was an astonishing and unexpected result.

“If you set out to solve a problem, there’s no guarantee you will succeed,” Gowers said. “But different people have different aptitudes and they know different tricks ... it turned out their combined efforts can be much quicker.”

This ability to collaborate quickly and transparently online is just one facet of a growing movement in research known as open science.

There are many interpretations of what open science means, with different motivations across different disciplines. Some are driven by the backlash against corporate-funded science, with its profit-driven research agenda. Others are Internet radicals who take the “information wants to be free” slogan literally. Others want to make important discoveries more likely to happen. However, for all their differences, the ambition remains roughly the same: to try and revolutionize the way research is performed by unlocking it and making it more public.

“What we try to do is get people to organize differently,” said Joseph Jackson, the organizer of the Open Science Summit, a meeting of advocates that was held for the first time last year at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jackson is a young bioscientist who, like many others, has discovered that the technologies used in genetics and molecular biology, once the preserve of only the most well-funded labs, are now cheap enough to allow experimental work to take place in their garages. For many, this means that they can conduct genetic experiments in a new way, adopting the so-called “hacker ethic” — the desire to tinker, deconstruct, rebuild.

The rise of this group is entertainingly documented in a new book by science writer Marcus Wohlsen, Biopunk, which describes the parallels between today’s generation of biological innovators and the rise of computer software pioneers of the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, Bill Gates has said that if he were a teenager today, he would be working on biotechnology, not computer software.

Spurred on by the new-found ability to work outside the system, these rebel biologists believe that the traditional way of doing science is not the most efficient and could even be holding back important developments.

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