Reinventing Discovery on the way to the Sage Congress

I’m in San Francisco for the Sage Commons Congress, and am excited to be able to contribute. I took a United flight, and there were no TVs. I was also surrounded by loud people, so couldn’t sleep. To salvage the 13 hours I read Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery, finally. It’s testament to the quality of the writing that I glided through it in one sitting (I did have a window seat). The book makes some wonderful points, and I’d recommend it to anyone. I wonder if Michael’s call to arms about the absurdity of the current model of scientific publishing was more scathing in earlier drafts, and that the original version might be accessible by giving Michael a beer. A few random things I enjoyed:

1) The optimism of our knowing about collective knowledge from Ostrom and others, and how that might allow us to progress to a change in the way science is done (from the top down, guided by informed decision making). I had previously written about the relevance of Ostrom to open science communities, in a brief post.

2) The wonderful public hissy fits one can read in open source software project sites, and how that adds humanity and interest to the process of work. It sounds like a similar thing happened in the Kasparov vs. the World chess game. There’s precious little of this in science.

3) The irony of our current publishing system, that actually inhibits distribution of information, whereas it was set up to do the opposite.

4) The wonderful section on what computers are good at vs. what humans are good at, and how this leads to a reinterpretation of what “understanding” is or how a “model” is perhaps more than that. I enjoyed the section on the Google Translate project (wasn’t that the DARPA project)? Successful through a statistical modelling of language uninformed by grammar.

5) I liked the comment that open drug discovery might be a step too far, given the IP ramifications. Well, we’re trying that, so let’s see!

6) Michael’s comments on the possible limitations of citizen science projects like Galaxyzoo and Foldit were also very interesting. These are spectacular projects, and the comments were addressing whether there were many other projects where the public could reasonably be expected to input productively. My view is: Yes, and I hope so… I think this is a transformative challenge, in that it would be so sensational if the public could contribute to hardcore science through good project design. I, for example, want to see the public able to contribute to projects in the design of new catalysts. The challenge is to design a system where that becomes possible. That’s extraordinarily tough, and hence worth doing.

I hope Michael will soon be able to write a sequel to the book, Discovery Reinvented.