I got a lot of feedback on my last post in which I argued that open source is the wrong metaphor fo science, because it ties us too closely to the artifact that is open source software. The core of my argument remains the same – science is not software, and we shouldn’t treat it the way we treat software. But I got a few comments, here on the blog and in email, that are worth looking at.
Here’s comment #1.
You cite openwetware and the biobricks registry, but if you look closer, openwetware is a wiki, not a website about open source wetware tech. To my knowledge, other than the people over at diybio, there have been no signs of anyone with an understanding of free and open source software infrastructure (not the legalese- the toolchains) applying the concepts to the world of open source science.
This comment illustrates my point by missing it, which is that we should not be applying the understanding of software to science. In software, we the humans are in charge. We write the code. We compile it. Everything exists inside a system that we built, that is at least somewhat intelligently designed. Bringing this “understanding” to science means we shove a science peg into a software slot. The idea that “open source science” should be a site about wetware tech betrays a focus on the construction of tech, which is indeed the point of software.
But science isn’t like software. Science is about extending the boundaries of our ignorance, not making technology. The difference between making technology (which is the point of software) and making discoveries (the point of science) is the root of the failure of the “open source science” metaphor. Science is about creating knowledge that doesn’t exist and exposing ignorance that does exist, not about writing source code that we control.
In honor of his recent passing, here’s Claude Lévi-Strauss: “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” (from Le Cru et le cuit, 1964)
This is precisely why I want to take us up a layer in the ontology. Open source software is an example of distributed innovation, and as an inspiration to make distributed innovation happen in science, it’s lovely. But it’s an inspiration, not a map.
We should absolutely have distributed innovation in science. Open WetWare (which I am well aware is a wiki) contains many protocols, crafts and techniques, that are shared openly. This is a locally relevant form of distribution, even if it doesn’t fit into an open source software box. Control over protocols and craft is at the core of one of the biggest resistors to distribution in science, which is competitive withholding. So is the registry of standard biological parts. These are resources and toolchains that absolutely support distribution of capability and increase capacity, which are fundamental to early-stage distributed innovation.
They’re just not what we expect when we wear open source glasses.
Here’s comment #2:
The “Open Gel Box” project is an initiative to bring biotech equipment into the 21st century. We need innovation in “established” tools to make them intuitive and accessible for anyone who wants to work with DNA. To that end, a group of users from the DIYbio list got together and designed a better, faster gel system than what exists today.
Pearl Biotech is now manufacturing a complete gel electrophoresis system according to the Open Gel Box design The Pearl Gel Box is available for $199 at http://www.pearlbiotech.com. We’re advocating for better equipment on all fronts, such as an Open Thermal Cycler.
I think this is awesome. It’s not “open source” though. It’s not even what I’d call “distributed innovation” – the innovation theorists call this kind of thing User-Driven Innovation. This is about as clear a case of UDI as I know, right down to the fact that it’s designed by the DIY folks and then made pretty and sold by a company. This again gets to the paucity of the open source software example. It simply isn’t big enough to fit science into it.
Distributed science, user-driven science, open innovation science, we need ALL of them, not a narrow idea that comes from software. It’s about hardware for science. It’s about data for science. It’s about laboratories for science. It’s about research departments and funders and promotion and tenure. It’s about paradigms, and paradigm shifts.
It’s not software.
We control software. We don’t control science. DIY Biology is one of the absolute leading examples of how, when we have a critical mass of open craft and protocols, users can lead the way. But it’s not something that’s enabled by an open source license, a code version repository, and other hallmarks of open source software. It’s users saying, “screw this, I can do better” – and doing it. It’s users who know the problem best and design the best solutions.
The business school folks call this “stickiness.” The knowledge of how to make the solution is localized – sticks – to the user. The dumb firms in the sector only make products their marketing departments tell them about, and the smart ones find ways to take user inventions and turn them into their product lines. Like Pearl.
(from my post: Stem cells, mice, vectors, plasmids, and more will need to available outside the old boy’s club that dominates modern life sciences.)
This is simply never gonna happen, because of the huge irreducible expense of maintaining and manipulating these reagents.
See: Personal Genome Project, Coriell Cell Culture Repository, Jackson Laboratories, StrainInfo. I could link a dozen more. The nodes are emerging. What’s missing is the network that connects them. What’s missing is an impact factor for materials.
We’re headed straight towards a future where scientists will need to publish their tools, data, and narratives, instead of compressing everything into a “paper” that is constrained by the cost of printing and mailing. I for one can’t wait. It’s going to be a key to distributing democratized access to tools, which is fundamental for both distributed innovation *and* user-driven innovation.
I believe your historical facts are a little skewed. Open Biology perhaps began on the internet back with BIONET, which functioned well through the late 80’s and early 90’s, until the network apparently failed to grab sufficient interest for funding. […] There have been efforts to create biology software repositories (similar to sourceforge.net except for Biology software) and these have largely failed to attract a majority of Bio-scientists too.
This comment’s talking about software. I’m not. It again illustrates the way that the open source metaphor comes with code-centric blinders.
It would be great to accelerate this process even further, for example by expanding PLoS, encouraging all scientists to publish their working software (for example, MATLAB scripts) into open source repositories
Now this is talking about the foundations for distributed science. When there is software in science, it should be published. Just like stem cells. Into repositories. Couldn’t agree more.
encouraging the people-in-the-middle (hobbyists, engineers) to publish in an intermediate form which isn’t as strict as a scientific journal yet maintains some level of technological standard and legitimacy — similar to the Internet RFC’s, which started as simple technical memo’s.
Now here’s where the comment truly shines, IMO. This is thinking broadly about breaking open the central metaphor of knowledge governance in science. This is not about “open source” – the internet RFCs aren’t “open source software” – they are protocols, distributed for implementation and comment. Sort of like that stuff on the Open WetWare wiki, huh?
Coming back to my point.
Let’s take off the open source glasses. Making science isn’t like making software. Engineering foundations for distribution, for user hacking, for bringing more people into the system, these are the things that allowed open source to emerge in software. Good design choices, like separation of concerns, led us to the world of open source software. Let’s learn from those lessons and build the foundations first, and let the science surprise us with the way it localizes distributed and user driven innovation.