Opening up science in Europe

Nieuws | de redactie
4 april 2016 | At the Open Science conference of the Dutch EU-presidency the stakes are high, because “in everyday research, science is only accessible to scientists. Science has a high wall around it. A wall that keeps knowledge and data inside - and keeps the public out.” Minister Sander Dekker therefore pleads for opening up, drastically.

You read his introduction on the theme of open access and open science here:

“Today, you’re standing at one of the city’s foundations: the Port of Amsterdam. In the seventeenth century, gold, silver and spices entered Europe through this port. The trade in these goods meant that Amsterdam was a magnet for people from all over Europe. Despite other customs, other ideas, other believes. All felt at home here.

And that never changed. Amsterdam is a meeting-place for all kinds of people. Take Rembrandt Square – maybe you’ve been there yourself. You’ll see businessmen and -women, dads with carrier bikes full of kids, and tourists enjoying all this city has to offer. The Reguliersdwarsstraat is just round the corner. This is the home base for Amsterdam’s lively gay scene, and has been so for decades.

Starting from zero

Thirty years ago, in the eightees, this scene flourished on the streets of Amsterdam. So it was also in this particular area one could see that a new disease started to spread among gay people. HIV-Aids. This disease caused the deaths of many, many people: gay people first of all, and later many others.

They looked to scientists to save them. But these scientists literally had to start from zero. Was this disease a kind of cancer? Or was it a virus or a bacterium? And why were patients developing diseases that they should have been immune to since their childhood? A group of young medical doctors and researchers from various organizations got together to find answers to this questions. They started a cohort study in which patient commitment was crucial. Patients were the ones who gave blood and information to them.

Maybe this sounds obvious to us today, but these researchers had to take a totally new approach back then. They had to go out of their labs and walk up to the streets to get in touch with their patients.

Facing reality in science

And that’s where these scientists had to face reality. Patients don’t care about citation counts and impact factors. The only thing that mattered to them was that they could understand what the scientists were saying. And the other way around: that the scientists could understand the patients’ questions and turn them into research questions.

It was cross-fertilization right from the start. Patients faithfully contributed to the cohort. They donated blood every three months. Filled out endless questionnaires. A big biobank was created. The study helped medical science to discover a drug cocktail in 1996 that turned HIV-aids into a chronic disease.

This example shows what an open approach in science can do.  It helps researchers to cross the boundaries of their own discipline, and join forces with others, even people from outside science. And in doing so, it saves lives.

Look at ebola

A more recent example of what open science can mean to society rose in the spring of 2014. In the West of Africa a rapidly spreading disease claimed its first victims. And it was pretty soon clear that a new form of Ebola was responsible for that. Fortunately, researchers decided to immediately publish all data available. Scientific publishers took responsibility as well by making articles on Ebola freely available to everyone. It gave research into the disease a real head-start. The data worked like a magnet to all sorts of experts. And in combining forces, scientists turned the tide in only six months’ time.

Research into HIV-aids and ebola shows us that open access to knowledge, and rapid and open sharing of research data, not only speeds up scientific progress. It also attracts unexpected partners. Partners who – in their turn – ask unexpected questions and help find unexpected answers. This goes for grand societal challenges but for fundamental research as well. Last month another part of the theory of Einstein was confirmed. It took more than one thousand scientists from different disciplines, and from countries all over the world, to prove only a part of the theory that sprung from one man’s mind.

Teamwork to leave no one out

Science is teamwork. Teamwork among academics specializing in different fields. Teamwork among researchers from different countries. And teamwork between scientists and non-scientists. The most exciting things happen right there. At the point where all those worlds meet. But we hardly ever get there.

Because all too often, in everyday research, science is only accessible to scientists. Science has a high wall around it. A wall that keeps knowledge and data inside – and keeps the public out. In spite of the fact that the public pays for this research. In a world where new knowledge is the key factor for social and economic growth, the majority is left standing.

-The teacher who wants to know more about the latest innovation on didactics. Left out.
-The starting entrepreneur who wants to access knowledge on making his company cradle-to-cradle is – again – left out.
-And the general practitioner who wants to offer his patients the  state of the art treatment is – also – left out.

Between progress and stagnation

And we are the ones that can change that. Together we can turn Open Science into a standard, not a coincidence. But that requires engagement from all of us. It requires scientists to share their data, publishers to work together on new business models and it requires national governments – including mine – to help you do this in every possible way.

Right at the start I told you how the port of Amsterdam worked like a magnet on different people, different cultures, and different opinions. Let’s all get together and turn science into the same sparkling magnet for everyone who can contribute. Because when science does open up, it can make a difference between life and death. Between progress and stagnation. And between glorious isolation and the wisdom of the crowd. So let’s make it happen.”

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