Sunday 13 November 2016

Why science – and open science – matters now more than ever

The internet is abound with thinkpieces about the election of Donald Trump, and I won’t bore you with my own views, aside from one: I hear a lot of scientists saying that their work is the least important thing now; that science has slipped down their personal agenda; that there are bigger fish to fry. 

I can understand why many of us feel this way, particularly in the immediate aftermath of such a calamitous election, but it’s mistaken.

Science matters now more than ever. Despair is an indulgence we cannot afford.

There are two existential threats posed by Trump – one that I think is mostly hyperbole, and another that is deadly and very real. The first is nuclear holocaust; the second is climate change. The threat of nuclear war is a Hollywood fantasy that will almost certainly never happen because all sides know that it guarantees mutual, permanent annihilation. The second is globally disastrous and nearly certain if the world doesn’t commit to mass action. If Trump withdraws the US from the Paris agreement, and global temperatures continue to rise, then the consequences for life on Earth are appalling. If temperatures rise by just 6 degrees then most life on Earth will become extinct, including us. None of the shit we think is important now nothing will matter a damn.

This really brings home for me why open science and evidence-based policy are so vital. Science must be open to be reproducible and, in turn, to have any chance of being valued in politics. And policy based on evidence is our ticket – our one ticket – to survival. I know now that attempting to make these normative will be my life's work in academia. Every day I will focus my efforts even more on our ongoing projects to promote open science and the use of evidence in policy-making.

To all scientists: now is the time to go all in and make your work as open as possible – if not for yourself then for your children and for their children. The more scientists who adopt open practices, the more normative they will become and the better chance humans have to still be here in a century’s time.

Before Brexit and Trump we could perhaps think that the wisdom of crowds would prevail and civilisation would proceed inexorably toward a Star Trek future. We now know that this is bullshit. The wisdom of crowds is bullshit. Civilisation is fragile, a thin veneer hard fought for and easily shattered.

It doesn’t matter if your work is in a field that you consider relevant to global problems like climate change – we can never predict which areas of science might one day form the basis of a solution to a problem. Adopting open practices across as many fields as possible sends the message that science needs to be transparent, reproducible and usable by anyone.

So, please, if you are not already doing so, publicly archive your data, materials and code, pre-register your hypotheses and analysis plans, and publish your work through open access routes. Focus on getting your science right rather than hacking your way to glam papers, climbing the greasy pole, or building your empire. Recognise your own bias: don't confuse the window to the natural world with a mirror. Be vocal in communicating your work in schools and to the public, particularly outside your echo chambers, to the people in your community who are the most skeptical or suspicious about science. Be politically active in highlighting the importance of evidence-based policy. Science funding is likely to become increasingly limited so make your science count. As scientists we are indoctrinated with the notion that competition matters but it doesn't. Cooperation is far more important, and we are all on the same team now. Team survival.

Whatever field you work in, your work counts and so does your voice. The world needs to survive at least four years of Donald Trump, and hell knows whatever worse may follow him.

I look at my daughter, who is ten months old, and I realise that she and her children will be the ones who will live with the choices we make today. She is why open science matters.


  1. In order to maintain public respect, scientists also need to speak out about bad practice when it is inconvenient for them to do so. Ignoring global warming is a threat to the interests of elites, but matters like the UK's treatment of disabled people and cuts to disability benefits (condemned this month by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilitie) primarily harm those at the bottom of society. Much of the harm done here has stemmed from poor quality research, used for political ends.

    The UK open data movement has been notably quiet on the fight for data from the first medical trial to have received funding from the Department of Work and Pensions, PACE. Even though the design of this trial was seriously flawed, and that results were then spun by the trial's researchers, the UK research community has largely turned a blind eye, with researchers from the US dominating attempts to show that long expressed patient concerns should not just be dismissed through snobbery and prejudice. It was left to a seriously ill patient to conduct a complicated legal battle from his bed. Even now the legal tribunal issued a condemning ruling of the behavior of the researchers trying to prevent access to annonymised trial data, and the way they attempted to smear their patient critics, attitudes within the UK research community to ME patients and PACE still seem founded on unpleasant old prejudices.

    To gain the respect of those who are now justifiably cynical about the claims of 'experts', open science needs to address problems when spun results and misleading claims harm only those at the bottom of society, rather than be a silent accomplice to those hoping to sweep these matters under the carpet.

  2. Well, I have been trained for years that my words don't matter, but you are so convincing, here are some ideas. Just for fun.

    We have our Trump in Hungary, and how I used this phenomenon for good:

    And if you are really patient, here's a complete book about this world (okay, from 2008, but I guess it only got more accurate over the past years)

    All the best!

  3. I appreciate your enthusiasm Chris. Rationally, I completely agree although emotionally I just find it very difficult to care. I do certainly agree that all of this is no excuse to fall back on the status quo. We should continue doing the best and the openest science we can because only this way we can win in this age of post-truth and anti-science politics. I assume you've seen Simine Vazire's post on that topic that expressed similar sentiments. Only by showing that scientists have nothing to hide can we stand up to those who spin conspiracy theories and spread other scientifically questionable claims to influence policy.

    But I feel I must consolidate my mental and emotional energy for this. I simple do not feel much in a mood to debate minutiae of different forms of preregistration or publication right now. Maybe that will pass but I do feel there are more important things in my life right now to worry about, like will I have a job, what are the odds of getting research funds and students, do I still feel welcome or safe in this country, and should I be moving?

    Finally, while I completely agree that nuclear war and outright fascism is still quite improbable, I also think that Trump is extremely volatile and unpredictable. So I wouldn't rule out any scenario right now...

    On the bright side, a nuclear inferno wiping our stupid species off the face of the earth might solve the climate change problem in the long run.

  4. I agree with the 1st reply on here: trust must be earned.

    If future policy is to be based on scientific findings, it seems to me that a very important part of this is that *all* findings should be made available in order to make the optimal decisions.

    Given the fact that scientists are allowed to publish only the findings they want to publish (i.c. "publication bias) it seems to me that solving that issue is rather important.

    Given this reasoning, i really appreciate all the efforts behind Registered Reports and i thank you for your efforts in making this publication process more mainstream.

    I keep wondering how scientists can help in this regard, and i keep thinking about whether it would be useful to start a petition that scientists (and perhaps civilians) can sign to support the implementation of Registered Reports at journals. Perhaps showing journals the results of this petition could help convince them about the importance of adopting the Registered Report format.

    Have you ever thought about starting such a petition, and do you think it could be useful?

    1. Thanks for commenting. The petition is a good idea. I've given this kind of thing passing thought in the past, but from our previous open letter on RRs ( I have also learned that the academic community can respond in a prickly manner to public pressure. That said, I do think that open letter helped push the initiative forward so I would certainly be open to trying something driven by members of the public (interestingly, whenever I explain RRs to members of the public, e.g. when flying, the response I always get is "oh I thought that was how scientific publishing already worked...and you have to ARGUE for this")

    2. Members of the public *and* academics in favor of the RR-format could perhaps join hands in the effort. That's why i wrote both groups of people could express their support for the initiative.

      I am not up to date as to what the efforts behind getting journals to adopt the RR-format exactly are at the moment, and how journals are contacted with regard to possibly adopting the RR format, but i can imagine that when thousands and perhaps millions of academics and members of the general public would have signed such a petition it could serve as something useful to refer to when contacting journals. The petition could briefly explain current problems (low powered research, publication bias, etc.) and how the RR-format solves this, and could amass lots of support over the years to come with a little luck and some magic from the crowd via twitter, facebook, etc.

      I also think that when, as is the case now as far as i understood it, the RR-format would be offered as "just" an option/ small part of the journal, that fellow academics would have nothing against it as they can keep publishing and doing research like they are used to. The RR-format would just be an option for those academics that would like to adhere to it, and see the scientific value of it.

      If i may be so bold, i really hope you give this kind of thing another passing thought, and/or perhaps discuss it with those closely involved with the RR-format.

      Or, why not engage fellow academics *and* the general public right away by starting a twitter-poll asking whether it could be useful to start such a petition. This could possibly shed some light as to whether the people who follow your twitter (academics *and* members of the general public) would think it's useful, and would sign it.

      Anyway, i won't bother you with anymore of my thoughts. I just think something needs to happen. I thank you very much for the reply, and all the best with your efforts!