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Won’t someone please think of the policy wonks?

22 September 2008 8 Comments

I wouldn’t normally try to pick a fight with Chad Orzel, and certainly not over a post which I mostly agree with, but I wanted to take some issue with the slant in his relatively recent post We are science (see also a good discussion in the comments).  Chad makes a cogent argument that there is a lot of whining about credit and rewards and that ‘Science’ or ‘The Powers That Be’ are blamed for a lot of these things. His point is that ‘We are science’ – and that it is the community of scientists or parts of it that makes these apparently barmy decisions. And as part of the community, if we want to see change, it is our responsibility to get on and change things. There is a strong case for more grass-roots approaches and in particular for those of us with some influence over appointments and promotions procedures to make the case in those committees for widening criteria. I certainly don’t have any problem with his exhortation to ‘be the change’ rather than complain about it. I would hope that I do reasonably good, though by no means perfect,  job of trying to live by the principles I am advocate.

Yet at the same time I think his apparent wholesale rejection of top-down approaches is a bit too much. There is a place for advocating changes in policy and standards. It is not always the right approach, either because it is not the right time or place, but sometimes it is. One reason for advocating changes in policy and standards is to provide a clear message about what the aspirations of a community or funding body are. This is particularly important in helping younger researchers assess the risks and benefits of taking more open approaches. Many of the most energetic advocates of open practice are actually in no position to act on their beliefs because as graduate students and junior postdocs they have no power to make the crucial decisions over where to publish and how (and whether) to distribute data and tools.

Articulations of policy such as the data sharing statements required by the UK BBSRC make it clear that there is an aspiration to move in this direction, that funding will be linked to delivering on these targets. This will both encourage young scientists to make the case to their PIs that this is the way forward and will also influence hiring committees. Chad makes the point that a similar mandate on public outreach for NSF grants has not been taken seriously by grantees. Here I would agree. There is no point having such policies if they are not taken seriously. But everything I have seen and heard so far suggests that the BBSRC does intend to take their policy and delivery on the data sharing statements very seriously indeed.

Top down initiatives are also sometimes needed to drive infrastructure development. The usability of the tools that will be needed to deliver on the potential of data and process sharing is currently woefully inadequate. Development is necessary and funding for this is required. Without the clear articulation from funders that this is the direction in which they wish to go, that they expect to see standards rising year on year, and without them backing that up with money, then nothing much will happen. Again BBSRC has done this, explicitly stating that it expects funding requestst to include support for data availability. The implication is that if people haven’t thought about the details of what they will do and its costs there will be questions asked. I wonder whether this was true of the NSF outreach scheme?

Finally, policy and top-down fiat has the potential, when judiciously applied to accelerate change. Funders, and indeed governments want to see better value for money on the research investment and see greater data availability as one way of achieving that. Chad actually provides an example of this working. The NIH deposition mandate has significantly increased the proportion of NIH funded papers available in PubMedCentral (I suspect Chad’s figure of 30% is actually taken from my vague recollection of the results of the Wellcome Trust Mandate – I think that current evidence suggests that the NIH mandate is getting about 50% now – just saw a graph of this somewhere but can’t find it now! Mark Siegal in the comments provided a link to the data in an article in Science (sorry behind paywall) – here). Clearly providing funding and policy incentives can move us further in that direction quicker. Anybody who doesn’t believe that funding requirements can drive the behaviour of research communities extremely effectively clearly hasn’t applied for any funding in the last decade.

But it remains the case that policy and funding is a blunt instrument. It is far more effective in the long term to bring the community with you by persuasion than by force. A community of successful scientists working together and changing the world is a more effective message in many ways than a fiat from the funding body. All I’m saying is that a combination of both is called for.


  • I agree in part with Chad’s statements but as someone who is nowhere near a position to “effect change” on an institutional level it is difficult to buy into the “be the change you want to see” meme. Get on the hiring committees, become a rebel reviewer at Nature, just do things the way you want to see them done – this is much easier for a senior scientist or even a newly hired assistant professor than it is for someone who doesn’t even have her Ph.D. yet. And folks in my position who are interested in openness in science are probably more likely to go to non-traditional, non-academic jobs after graduation because of the fact that the current system does not reward their interests.
    So is there a distinction to be made that scientists in a position to make change should do it instead of complaining? Or does change actually need to happen top-down as well because of a shortage of people in those positions?

  • I agree in part with Chad’s statements but as someone who is nowhere near a position to “effect change” on an institutional level it is difficult to buy into the “be the change you want to see” meme. Get on the hiring committees, become a rebel reviewer at Nature, just do things the way you want to see them done – this is much easier for a senior scientist or even a newly hired assistant professor than it is for someone who doesn’t even have her Ph.D. yet. And folks in my position who are interested in openness in science are probably more likely to go to non-traditional, non-academic jobs after graduation because of the fact that the current system does not reward their interests.
    So is there a distinction to be made that scientists in a position to make change should do it instead of complaining? Or does change actually need to happen top-down as well because of a shortage of people in those positions?

  • Mark Siegal

    PubMed Central deposit rates are estimated at 56% of total NIH papers, including 30% as manuscripts from authors and 26% as final articles from publishers [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/321/5896/1621a]. This is for April to June 2008, the first three months since the Public Access mandate.

  • Mark Siegal

    PubMed Central deposit rates are estimated at 56% of total NIH papers, including 30% as manuscripts from authors and 26% as final articles from publishers [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/321/5896/1621a]. This is for April to June 2008, the first three months since the Public Access mandate.

  • Mark, thanks for the link. I knew I’d seen it somewhere recently but of course the Science article didn’t come up in a Google search!

  • Mark, thanks for the link. I knew I’d seen it somewhere recently but of course the Science article didn’t come up in a Google search!

  • Hilary

    The NIH also provides a live snapshot of their submission statistics here: http://www.nihms.nih.gov/stats/index.html

  • Hilary

    The NIH also provides a live snapshot of their submission statistics here: http://www.nihms.nih.gov/stats/index.html