October 28, 2011 9:15 pm

Reinventing Discovery

Michael Nielsen argues that online collaboration is changing the scientific landscape

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was shared between three scientists – Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss – for discovering, through their research on supernovae, that the universe’s rate of expansion is accelerating.

Yet, as the plaudits for the winners began to flow, one or two of their peers sounded notes of caution. Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, suggested that this was an instance where the Nobel committee had been “damagingly constrained” by its convention of not honouring more than three individuals at one time.

The prize-winning work had been carried out by two groups, each made up of a dozen or so scientists. “It would have been fairer,” Rees argued, “and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.”

Large-scale collaborations such as these, enabled by advanced software and online tools, are an increasingly prominent feature of the scientific landscape. But, according to Michael Nielsen, these are just the early signs of a more profound shift towards networked ways of doing science that will require the Nobel Assembly, together with every other scientific institution, to redesign their systems of incentive, recognition and reward.

Nielsen was a rising star in the field of quantum computing before abandoning front-line research to become a full-time advocate of open science. He admits that he wrote Reinventing Discovery “with the goal of lighting an almighty fire under the scientific community”. The result is a rich and engaging book that combines clear-headed analysis of the opportunities for – and obstacles to – collaboration with a persuasive argument for change.

Nielsen opens with an account of the Polymath Project, an experiment run by Tim Gowers, a leading mathematician at the University of Cambridge. Gowers is an avid blogger and in January 2009 posted a difficult maths problem on his site, inviting his readers to work with him to solve it. Anyone who wanted to was able to follow the discussion and post ideas.

The project got off to a slow start. For the first seven hours no one posted a comment. Then a mathematician named Jozsef Solymosi proposed a variant on Gowers’s problem, followed by an Arizona high school teacher who offered some thoughts of his own. Soon the site erupted: over 37 days 27 people wrote 800 mathematical comments with a total of more than 170,000 words. At that point Gowers said he was confident that the original problem had been solved.

New ways of working together are only part of Nielsen’s story. A second development is the growth of vast databases of everything from genetic information and climate forecasts to disease patterns and the structure of the universe. These are enabling new types of “data-driven intelligence” that shape how scientists find meaning in knowledge and increase the variety of scientific questions we can answer.

A final change is the rise of an army of “citizen scientists”. Nielsen gives the example of Galaxy Zoo, a website that has recruited 250,000 online volunteers to help classify galaxy images.

The shared methods and protocols of science, Nielsen argues, make it particularly well-suited to collaborative working. Yet progress towards openness remains uneven. Fierce competition for jobs and funding, along with an academic culture of “publish or perish”, often inhibit the sharing of ideas.

Nielsen’s discussion of some thorny issues – such as the role of corporate science and intellectual property – might feel a little perfunctory. But in Reinventing Discovery he has provided the most compelling manifesto yet for the transformative power of networked science.

James Wilsdon is a professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex

Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, by Michael Nielsen, Princeton University Press, RRP£16.95, 280 pages

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