Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.
As with any great idea, there are a number of obstacles to such a thing going mainstream. The biggest one is certainly the existing incentive system that lies at the foundation of the academic world. A limited number of opportunities, relentless competition, and pressure to “publish or perish” usually end up incentivizing exactly the opposite – keeping results closed and doing everything to gain a competitive edge. Still, against all odds, a number of successful Open Science projects are out there in the wild, making profound impacts on their respective fields. HapMap Project, OpenWorm, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Polymath Project are just a few to name. And the whole movement is just getting started.
While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.
It will require building hardware.
At this year’s SXSW Interactive, we had an opportunity to talk with [Charles Fracchia], a renaissance hacker at the MIT Media Lab. Reinforcing the Media Lab’s “eclectic genius” stereotype, [Charles]’s background spans an impressive range of fields—from Synthetic Biology to Biomedical Engineering and beyond. A biologist by training, he is also a self-taught hardware hacker and, these days, is spending most of his time building “hybrid” systems at the intersection of Biology, Computer Science, and Electrical Engineering. True to the hacker spirit of open collaboration and sharing, he is also a big proponent of Open Science and is committed to making it a reality in the field of Biomedical Research.
Most of [Charles’] recent work has been motivated by the surprising fact that a vast proportion of peer-reviewed biological research is not independently reproducible. Reproducibility is a huge challenge in this field, and part of the problem lies in the fact that a number of environmental factors that could impact the results of the experiments are currently not captured at all. The solution that [Charles] and his team are working on is a range of environmental sensor nodes, designed to be packaged as a part of the standard biological lab equipment. Such nodes could enable an easy collection of necessary data in a “natural” environment of the experiment, making it easier to pinpoint the exact conditions under which the results were obtained.
It is projects like this, especially if created as Open Hardware, which have the potential to change the Open Science game in Biomedical Research. Affordable, peer-reviewed hardware that every lab can independently manufacture can show the way to standardization in the sharing of experimental data. [Charles] and his team are committed to this mission and are taking things beyond academia and into the real world. They are starting a project called BioBright, which aims at revolutionizing the biology lab and making Open Science in this space a reality.
 Challenges in Irreproducible Research” Nature Magazine