Science Opens Up

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One of the big reasons I enjoy writing for the Science in Society Blog is that it gives me an opportunity to make scientific research more accessible to people who aren’t scientists. When I learn about an exciting scientific breakthrough, I want to share it with everyone I know.

For instance, researchers just published a study about new technology that lets pigs and monkeys control computer equipment with their brains. That is amazing! Pigs and monkeys controlling computers with their brains - if that doesn’t make you excited for science, I’m not sure what will. Though some scientific discoveries sound cool enough at face value that they can engage all kinds of audiences without much additional clarification, a lot of research just seems dry and boring, even to scientists. For instance, I think theoretical physics is fascinating, but some science writers (and scientists as well) have openly opined that some of the most important work being done in the field can sound pretty boring.

But of course, finding a particular research topic to be boring doesn’t make it any less important than the exciting stuff, and I think there’s a good reason to write about the less-exciting aspects of research as well. I’m going to get a little bit philosophical here. At its core, science is really just another way to pursue the truth. Scientists have ideas about the truth behind something (how our brains function, how the universe was created, why the sky is blue, etc.), and so they design experiments to test their hypotheses. Ideally, those experiments should be described clearly enough that other scientists can run them exactly the same way, in order to verify the original findings and make sure the original scientists didn’t just get lucky (or unlucky!). Sure, we can use fancy statistics to argue that a single experiment is generalizable to the rest of the world, but in the end, nothing helps validate the truth of a claim like replication.

As important as replication is, though, it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention by most researchers. Some scientists omit many important bits of information (intentionally or not) about their experimental methods, often making it impossible to try and follow their protocols. And replication really isn’t a priority for funding sources either - in most cases, applying for a grant with the sole purpose of “replicating previous results” is a great way to get turned down (at least in cognitive neuroscience).

A group of psychologists with $5.25 million in private funding is hoping to change that, however. They recently founded the Center for Open Science, which aims to bring some much-needed transparency to scientific research. The Center is partnering with a popular peer-reviewed journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, to promote the detailed publication of studies’ methodologies before those studies even starts to collect data. That’s a pretty big deal, considering how secretive many researchers can be about how they gather and analyze all of the data they use.

This news comes as part of a growing movement toward openness in scientific research. Some scientists were moved by the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz to make their publications more easily accessible, without charging readers steep prices for the right to read articles describing experiments that were often funded by tax dollars. Funding bodies are also doing their part to facilitate the openness trend - the NIH recently announced that papers produced from publicly funded studies would start to become available much more quickly after publication than was the case in the past.

Again, science is ultimately the pursuit of truth. Some aspects of research are more interesting than others (ANIMALS CONTROLLING COMPUTERS WITH THEIR BRAINS!!!), but if we don’t keep the less interesting bits in mind as well, we could wind up on a slippery slope toward total opacity from scientific research.

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