Yesterday was the deadline for submissions of "[p]roblems that, if solved, would advance the knowledge and capabilities in an area of your research". You can vote on them until Sunday, March 21 — two of the submitted problems will be turned into prizes (US$30k & 20k) for those coming up with a solution. My proposal (including the text contained in the supplementary file) is pasted in below:
Test the efficiency of public versus non-public peer review, both for research proposals and scholarly manuscripts. The results of this test would provide food for thought for the whole scientific community (which is based on non-public peer review) and the society at large (which ultimately pays the bills).
The following are the slightly redacted notes taken during a phone conversation this morning between Janet Haven and me on ways in which the Open Society Institute's Information Initiative could support Open Science.
JH (per email):
We'd like to ask you to think about two to three emerging opportunities for--or threats to--open society institutions and values that you are aware of which are not receiving sufficient attention and where a funder like OSI could usefully intervene. We encourage you to suggest issues that are still very much on the horizon; there need not be an obvious solution to the points you raise.
DM (in blog post mentioned above):
- support open collaborative environments for research funding, research, and knowledge structuring (see post and discussion at http://ff.im/gpry3 )
- support science prizes/ competitions for research done in the open (see http://ff.im/gpry3 ), or specific scientists/ labs working in the open (possibly part-time on "open", part-time on "science")
- promote diversification of the measures used to assess the impact of a researcher - http://ff.im/ghGML and http://ff.im/gvfKg
- support a test of the efficiency of non-public peer review - http://ff.im/gvfKg and
Such is the title of a two-part publication by Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman. It provides for a fascinating assessment of the state-of-the-art of Information Science over the last ten years, much of it generalizable to other fields. In the following, I will list some quotes from the papers — I will try to comment on them later as time permits: Part I
The Internet represents an opportunity to change this system, one which has created a 300-year-old, collective long-term memory, into something new and more efficient, perhaps adding in a current, collective short-term working memory at the same time. With new online tools, scientists could begin to share techniques, data and ideas online to the benefit of all parties, and the public at large.
This is a comment on
Maxine Clark's "End of the line for science journalism?".
I can see an end of the line for science journalism only when either science or journalism were to disappear, or the connection between them. None of these scenarios seem very likely, and at least for the third, the opposite appears to me far more probable for years to come: If, as the editorial asserts, "the deeper value of journalism" is indeed "to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere — science included", then the current growth in the amount of publicly available scientific information (in fields as diverse as genetics, astronomy and climate sciences) will certainly do its share to shift a possible end of the line for science journalism a fair bit into the future.
Yet large amounts of such information are not yet available to the public. This includes, ironically, most scholarly publications (a problem highlighted in the comment above by Björn Brembs), but also much of the work that has been performed on the way towards an accepted manuscript - raw data or computational tools, for instance, are not routinely made public along with a paper, nor is any notable fraction of all the effort that has gone into grant writing or into peer review of grants and manuscripts. Taking steps towards making these processes more open is in the interest of most of the parties involved: Scientists would be enabled to take credit for these so far hidden efforts, and to build more quickly on each other's work. Science funders could reduce the probability of spending money on an approach already funded by another funder, and would require less reporting to assess the effects of their engagements. Science journalists could enrich their current "scientists found out" reports with some of the "scientists are investigating - let's see how they do it!" variant, or reports on topics like animal rights in research with more pertinent data. Finally, the public would benefit from all of this - shorter research cycles, more efficient use of research funds, and a better understanding of what it actually means when scientists "found out" or "are investigating" something.
In the process, the distinctions between science journalists and scientists are bound to be blurred - scientists may start to communicate directly with the public (including journalists) by means of blogs, wikis or other social software, while science journalists (and indeed other members of the public) may well provide informed feedback on planned or ongoing research projects. At the end of the day and despite the enhanced interaction, however, everybody will still have to focus on their core business, i.e. scientists on research and science journalists on reporting. The public may turn either way or elsewhere, and the diversification of media that allows for people (if so inclined) to turn away almost completely from any scientific information seems to me much more of a concern than putative ends of the line for science journalism.
"Fantasy Science Funding" is an online game played by people with concrete ideas about science funding who are not currently in a position to put these ideas into practice. There are five rules to the game: 1 - choose a funding body whose funds you are managing in your fantasy, 2 - imagine how their funds could be distributed to the benefit of science, 3 - choose areas of science to be "fired" (i.e. whose funding should be decreased with respect to present state), 4 - choose areas of science to be "hired" (where funding should be increased with respect to now), 5 - blog about it.
Previous shindings that I am aware of were hosted by Duncan Hull, Björn Brembs and Cameron Neylon.
A recent paper entitled "Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant" suggests that there are opportunities to improve on currently prevailing research funding systems and gives concrete examples.
If one is considering the prospects of coming to the (or living in the) US for any type of training mechanism, it is very important to be aware of the current trends in funding. Young scientists need to think strategically about their careers and how to better make sustainable arguments on funding practices to those whom are in charge of allocating funds. You can bet that I will be one of those people advocating for this type of activity and that I will utilize the skills of understanding pitfalls (garnered from my grant writing activities) in investing in human capital for the future. This article describes what is going on with those whom are at the top of their fields and how they are seeing their lives and careers. A must read...
A recent paper suggest that revolutionary research can be stimulated to a larger extent than currently by large-scale prizes for projects that have initiated such revolutions. This is especially relevant for young scientists, as they have to establish themselves in an appropriate niche within the scientific community, and one of the most promising (yet usually very risky, and thus not popular) strategies to create such niches is to remodel significant parts of the scientific landscape by questioning (with the support of relevant empirical or theoretical arguments). This also generally creates opportunities for a whole generation of scientists, and so the scientific community should have an interest in rewarding its revolutionaries.
The paper appeared as an editorial (Bruce G. Charlton and Peter Andras: Stimulating revolutionary science with mega-cash prizes) in Medical Hypotheses 70:709-713 (2008) and is available online via
I found a very interesting article in the Feb 8th issue of Science regarding new ways for encouraging research in academia and industry for the development of new drugs for neglected diseases. The proposal involves a large prize that would replace a patent, thus allowing access to life-saving drugs at affordable prices. The argument is that the size of the prize will determine the level of interest in research. Furthermore, another criteria which could be used to determine the size of the prize could be the number of lives saved or enhanced as a direct result of the drug/therapy. I think this is the kind of 'out-of-the-box' thinking that could yield some positive results in the long run.
MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS--If the World Health Organization offered a $10 billion award for a malaria vaccine, would that persuade major pharmaceutical companies to go after the prize? Could a $100 million prize encourage development of a reliable, cheap, and fast diagnostic assay for tuberculosis? And would those monetary awards prove to be the cheapest, or fastest, way to achieve such medical innovations?
Provocative questions such as those were at the core of a 2-day workshop* here last week addressing whether prize incentives can stimulate the creation of new drugs and therapies. For some speakers, prizes offer a chance to spur medical research on neglected diseases, including those that strike people in developing nations who can afford little health care. Others took a more radical view: A national or global medical prize scheme could eliminate drug patents, stimulate drug development, and lower escalating health care costs. "A prize is a [research] incentive, the same way a monopoly is an incentive," says James Love, director of the think tank Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) in Washington, D.C.
Cosponsored by KEI and UNU-MERIT, a research and training center run jointly by United Nations University and Maastricht University, the workshop drew several dozen economists, intellectual-property specialists, public-health officials, and drug-development experts to discuss a concept that's attracting more attention. For example, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced a bill, the Medical Innovation Prize Act, written with Love's help, that would replace medical patents with an estimated $80 billion annual award fund. Although the bill is unlikely to go anywhere now, Sanders hopes to get a Senate hearing this year to publicize the concept. "There is growing interest and political feasibility for trying prizes in a variety of contexts," says Stephen Merrill of the U.S. National Academies, who recently examined how the U.S. National Science Foundation could set up a prize system to stimulate innovation (Science, 26 January 2007, p. 446).
Prize contests have long been used to steer efforts toward particular discoveries or technological accomplishments, and they're becoming popular again (Science, 30 September 2005, p. 2153). One well-known early success was the British government's 18th century prize to find a way for seafarers to gauge longitude. More recently, the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a private, reusable, crewed spacecraft prompted an estimated $100 million to $400 million in space-flight research before Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne won it in 2004.
Although perhaps not as prevalent as technology competitions, medical prizes are attracting sponsors. Pierre Chirac of Médecins sans Frontières said at the meeting that his group was considering an award for the desperately needed TB diagnostic test. And in 2006, Prize4Life, a nonprofit group founded by a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), announced a $1 million prize for a biomarker that can track the fatal disease's progression--a key for any drug development. Prize4Life hopes to launch two more contests, including a $2.5 million prize for a treatment that proves effective in a common mouse model of ALS.
Such modest awards pale in comparison to the mammoth prize system Love advocates through the Sanders bill. Financed annually with 0.6% of the United States's gross domestic product--about $80 billion at the moment--the Sanders plan would give annual awards to medical innovations based on the health impact for the nation--assessed using a measurement known as quality-adjusted life years that gauges improvements in life expectancy. Instead of the government granting patents to a company, a board that would include business and patient representatives, as well as government health officials, would each year judge any new products and award their developers a share of the fund.
At the Maastricht meeting, intellectual-property specialist William Fisher III of Harvard Law School argued that prize schemes have some advantages. Patents, said Fisher, guide medical research away from vaccines, which may require at most a few doses per person but arguably have the most health impact, and toward treatments for the rich and the development of "me-too" drugs, copies of an already successful drug with just enough differences to be patentable. "Prizes can offset all three" of those biases, he says.
PhRMA, a trade group in Washington, D.C., that represents pharmaceutical and biotech firms, has strongly criticized the Sanders bill as a step toward socialized medicine. And yet it is intrigued by new incentives, if the patent system stays intact. "It's an interesting idea to add prizes for neglected diseases to the existing system," says Shelagh Kerr of PhRMA, who attended the workshop.
Prize incentives are, however, unlikely to sweep the medical research world. Philanthropic and patient groups may offer new awards, but governments may be more cautious. "We're no longer in the Longitude Prize era. We pay scientists many millions to do research," says David King, former science adviser to the U.K. government. "How do you decide how much money to award?" adds economist Aidan Hollis of the University of Calgary in Canada, noting that governments typically don't know in advance what social value a medical treatment will have.
The workshop itself offered an ironic morsel of evidence that prizes are not perfect incentives. Organizers offered a €1500 award for the best paper on using monetary prizes to stimulate private investment in medical research, but no entries have been submitted thus far. The contest has now been extended to mid-April.