January 09, 2012

Reinventing Discovery on IEEE Spectrum's Techwise Podcast

Late last month IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations podcast looked at a book published last fall called Reinventing Discovery. The podcast is worth listening to, but I would like to highlight part of it here:

Steven Cherry: You know, I mentioned at the top that your book is part descriptive and part prescriptive. What are some further changes that you’d like to see wrought by the Internet and social networking?

Michael Nielsen: Well, there’s a lot of very promising ideas that seem like they should work in principle and yet they don’t work in practice. One example that I give in the book, for example, is a lot of people have tried building scientific wikis to collaboratively build knowledge bases about the latest research accomplishments. And often these wikis haven’t done quite as well as you think they should, and part of the reason, of course, is that there’s a real opportunity cost involved in contributing to a wiki: Should you—particularly as a young researcher—should you spend your time doing that, or should you spend your time writing, working towards peer-reviewed scientific papers? And from a scientific career point of view, the answer is of course pretty simple: You should work on the scientific papers, because there’s not going to be much credit for you if you adopt these more radical, newfangled tools.

Steven Cherry: Are there any other examples?

Michael Nielsen: Two very big examples, very broad examples are data sharing and code sharing, both of which are things which in most disciplines people don’t get a whole lot of credit for. Very often there’s a lot of very important scientific knowledge locked up in, for example, code, which you might use to do all sorts of data processing in the laboratory or simulations or whatever. And yet, when I talk to people who write a lot of code as part of their scientific job, they’ll say that very often they’re extremely reluctant to release that code publicly because well, first of all, it’ll end up being a pain; they’ll have all sorts of support and maintenance requests from other people. And second, it’s not something they can use as part of their tenure case; it’s just not something they get a whole lot of credit for.

Steven Cherry: So really it seems like academia has to catch up with the Internet and start rewarding behavior that’s pretty useful to society.

Michael Nielsen: I certainly think so. A phrase that’s really stuck in my head is—a biologist commented to me once that he’d been sitting on a genome for an entire species of life for more than a year. And he’d been doing this because his collaborators didn’t want him to share that data, didn’t want him to upload that data online where other people could use it. This, of course, is really not very uncommon within science, and it seems like really a tragedy, a lost opportunity. Other people could potentially have made all sorts of useful discoveries with that data.

We regularly end up discussing topics of this nature during our NCSU Software Engineering Journal Club, so if you, like me, find this interesting, then you might want to come to our next meeting.