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Talking to the next generation – NESTA Crucible Workshop

28 June 2009 16 views 11 Comments

Yesterday I was privileged to be invited to give a talk at the NESTA Crucible Workshop being held in Lancaster. You can find the slides on slideshare. NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts,  is an interesting organization funded via a UK government endowment to support innovation and enterprise and more particularly the generation of a more innovative and entrepreneurial culture in the UK. Among the programmes it runs in pursuit of this is the Crucible program where a small group of young researchers, generally looking for or just in their first permanent or independent positions, attend a series of workshops to get them thinking broadly about the role of their research in the wider world and to help them build new networks for support and collaboration.

My job was to talk about “Science in Society” or “Open Science”. My main theme was the question of how we justify taxpayer expenditure on research; that to me this implies an obligation to maximise the efficiency of how we do our research. Research is worth doing but we need to think hard about how and what we do. Not surprisingly I focussed on the potential of using web based tools and open approaches to make things happen cheaper, quicker, and more effectively. To reduce waste and try to maximise the amount of research output for the money spent.

Also not surprisingly there was significant pushback – much of it where you would expect. Concerns over data theft, over how “non-traditional” contributions might appear (or not) on a CV, and over the costs in time were all mentioned. However what surprised me most was the pushback against the idea of putting material on the open web versus traditional journal formats. There was a real sense that the group had a respect for the authority of the printed, versus online, word which really caught me out. I often use a gotcha moment in talks to try and illustrate how our knowledge framework is changed by the web. It goes “how many people have opened a physical book for information in the last five years?”. Followed by “and how many haven’t used Google in the last 24 hours”. This is shamelessly stolen from Jamie Boyle incidentally.

Usually you get three or four sheepish hands going up admitting a personal love of real physical books. Generally it is around 5-10% of the audience, and this has been pretty consistent amongst mid-career scientists in both academia and industry, and people in publishing. In this audience about 75% put their hands up.  Some of these were specialist “tool” books, mathematical forms, algorithmic recipes, many of them were specialist texts and many referred to the use of undergraduate textbooks. Interestingly they also brought up an issue that I’ve never had an audience bring up before; that of how do you find a good route into a new subject area that you know little about, but that you can trust?

My suspicion is that this difference comes from three places, firstly that these researchers were already biased towards being less discipline bound by the fact that they’d applied for the workshop. They were therefore more likely to discipline hoppers,  jumping into new fields where they had little experience and needed a route in. Secondly, they were at a stage of their career where they were starting to teach, again possibly slightly outside their core expertise and therefore looking for good, reliable material, to base their teaching on. Finally though there was a strong sense of respect for the authority of the printed word. The printing of the German Wikipedia was brought up as evidence that printed matter was, at least perceived to be, more trustworthy. Writing this now I am reminded of the recent discussion on the hold that the PDF has over the imagination of researchers. There is a real sense that print remains authoritative in a way that online material is not. Even though the journal may never be printed the PDF provides the impression that it could or should be. I would guess also that the group were young enough also to be slightly less cynical about authority in general.

Food for thought, but it was certainly a lively discussion. We actually had to be dragged off to lunch because it went way over time (and not I hope just because I had too many slides!). Thanks to all involved in the workshop for such an interesting discussion and thanks also to the twitter people who replied to my request for 140 character messages. They made a great way of structuring the talk.

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  • Clare Warren

    Cameron, thanks for initiating that lively discussion over the weekend. I had never thought about open sourcing my data. I’m still a little concerned about opensourcing the current project but may now put up unpublished “dead ends” from other projects to see if other people can put the data to good use. Lots to think about, and thanks for being so willing to discuss all our interruptive questions!

  • Clare Warren

    Cameron, thanks for initiating that lively discussion over the weekend. I had never thought about open sourcing my data. I’m still a little concerned about opensourcing the current project but may now put up unpublished “dead ends” from other projects to see if other people can put the data to good use. Lots to think about, and thanks for being so willing to discuss all our interruptive questions!

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    Clare, thanks for taking part and being open minded. It is a big step to go as far as some of us go down this road but I always want to encourage people who take the steps that they can in this direction. Radical extremes aren’t for everyone and aren’t appropriate for many types of project. A lot depends on the type of work you are doing and how competitive the field is. I’ve not had any negative experiences myself but other people tell stories of data being stolen.

    The main thing to my mind is to balance the potential risks versus the potential benefits and make an active decision that is right for you (and your collaborators!) at this point in time. Putting up information about “dead ends” or partly complete projects is a great start – you’ve got very little to lose and potentially quite a lot to gain.

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    Clare, thanks for taking part and being open minded. It is a big step to go as far as some of us go down this road but I always want to encourage people who take the steps that they can in this direction. Radical extremes aren’t for everyone and aren’t appropriate for many types of project. A lot depends on the type of work you are doing and how competitive the field is. I’ve not had any negative experiences myself but other people tell stories of data being stolen.

    The main thing to my mind is to balance the potential risks versus the potential benefits and make an active decision that is right for you (and your collaborators!) at this point in time. Putting up information about “dead ends” or partly complete projects is a great start – you’ve got very little to lose and potentially quite a lot to gain.

  • http://www.nesta.org.uk/ Rachel Brazil

    Cameron, sorry i couldnt be there but its great to read your reflections on the talk.
    i think there is a real pressure on early-career researchers to be successful and there is a tendancy to think this means they have to organise their careers in the same way as their supervisors or senior department colleagues. Working in an open way might seem like a risk they can not afford to take at this stage.
    We definitely need more role models like yourself to spread the word that new ways of working could actually help give them the edge.

  • http://www.nesta.org.uk Rachel Brazil

    Cameron, sorry i couldnt be there but its great to read your reflections on the talk.
    i think there is a real pressure on early-career researchers to be successful and there is a tendancy to think this means they have to organise their careers in the same way as their supervisors or senior department colleagues. Working in an open way might seem like a risk they can not afford to take at this stage.
    We definitely need more role models like yourself to spread the word that new ways of working could actually help give them the edge.

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    It’s interesting that younger researchers are expected to take serious risks with the career, their projects, and indeed their family in some cases, to get ahead in the academic research world yet at the same time many are strongly discouraged from taking risks that are seen as “non-standard” – that would set them out from the usual set of “ordinary” risks that are allowed (like nervous breakdowns, health problems etc., short term contracts).

    If I could get one message across it would be that these “radical” approaches are just a different set of risks with different paybacks. In many ways I feel the risks are lower, but then I’ve done well out of it, but we never talk about the risks of not being radical either. In any case, thanks for the opportunity to speak to the group – it was really rewarding for me.

  • http://openwetware.org/wiki/User:Cameron_Neylon Cameron Neylon

    It’s interesting that younger researchers are expected to take serious risks with the career, their projects, and indeed their family in some cases, to get ahead in the academic research world yet at the same time many are strongly discouraged from taking risks that are seen as “non-standard” – that would set them out from the usual set of “ordinary” risks that are allowed (like nervous breakdowns, health problems etc., short term contracts).

    If I could get one message across it would be that these “radical” approaches are just a different set of risks with different paybacks. In many ways I feel the risks are lower, but then I’ve done well out of it, but we never talk about the risks of not being radical either. In any case, thanks for the opportunity to speak to the group – it was really rewarding for me.

  • Gabriel Cavalli

    I think it is very interesting to discuss it based on the concept of risk. However, even before considering data sharing, just a look at research funding shows how pretty conservative the whole system is. In a way, maybe this is at the core of the perception of risk in data sharing and open access: if you will be funded in terms of having done the work before being considered to apply for funding, instead of how innovative your ideas are, then holding your own data secure and unknown becomes an obsession: enabling others to base their own ideas and preliminary data on your results becomes giving away a jealously-guarded lead access to resources.

  • Gabriel Cavalli

    I think it is very interesting to discuss it based on the concept of risk. However, even before considering data sharing, just a look at research funding shows how pretty conservative the whole system is. In a way, maybe this is at the core of the perception of risk in data sharing and open access: if you will be funded in terms of having done the work before being considered to apply for funding, instead of how innovative your ideas are, then holding your own data secure and unknown becomes an obsession: enabling others to base their own ideas and preliminary data on your results becomes giving away a jealously-guarded lead access to resources.