A Fireside chat about science

A Fireside chat about science

It’s lunch time on Sunday afternoon and the room is full. People are excited to find out what Mozilla has in mind for science.

This is the Fireside Chat, where we learn what Kaitlin ThaneyMark Surman and Josh Greenberg have on their minds for science and the open web.


Mozilla recently set up the Mozilla Science Lab, which is directed by Kaitlin Thaney. Kaitlin has been in the open science space for 10 years and is interested in and excited about creating tools for researchers, to make Science more open, web enabled and collaborative. So how can Mozilla take this to the next level?

Josh Greenberg is programme director at the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, who are funding research and are interested in STEM education and a public understanding of science. He has been focussing on information technology and how it is changing the way research is being shared.

The talk started with the basics: how is the web changing science?

This was an interesting concept, considering that it was because of science that the web was created! So without science, we wouldn’t event be discussing this. The Internet has advanced so much, and the way science is communicated still seems to be stuck on ink and paper.

The main goal is that the web can be used for what it is good at – making connections and closing the distance between different groups around the world. The web allows access to science for those who otherwise cannot reach it. Kaitlin believes that it is not only tools and technology, but also the unique characteristics of the Web that will allow people to get involved. This interconnectedness and doing things on a scale that haven’t been done before will take science to a whole new level.

So how does the Mozilla Science Lab fit into this? Mozilla Science Lab is an online platform that will help scientists, and non-scientists, to begin to understand and use the tools that are available.

So science is no longer about lab coats and beakers, it’s about communities, about sharing information, and about how people work together to reach a common goal. This is what Science Lab says it hopes to help facilitate.

At this point, Josh Greenberg mentioned Thomas Khun, a philosopher of science who talked about paradigm shifts. These are points where science (or any field) becomes unstable when all the questions that have been asked are not yielding answers. Things are going wrong. Someone then seems to look at the information in front of them from a different point of view, and at that Eureka Moment, you have a shift.

Josh believes that science is going through a paradigm shift when it comes to the Web. This is a very interesting, and turbulent time to be in this area. Many people don’t believe in it yet, probably because they cannot look at it from a different perspective, from a global, sharing point of view.

So now is the time for cultural shifts. Not just in science, but out in society too. People need to change the way they think. Journalism is a good example: people think in ink, even though these days it’s all about pixels. The same goes for science: science is still thinking about ink and paper, but now it’s all starting to become about pixels. It is going to need a change in culture, a change in the way that research is done. The Internet is a resource that is not being tapped enough. Not only this, but there needs to be a change in the way rewards are given. Open access publishing is making things difficult for papers that are behind a paywall, but papers are still the way researchers know that they are doing well. The question is whether the Internet can provide another meaningful way to reward scientists so that it is not all about how many publications you have, where you have been published, but more about the work itself.

Apart from the Ivory Towers, are there any other things standing in the way of this movement? Yes. There are several. One is that there is still the stereotypical view that scientists are super intelligent, super awesome, inaccessible people, and that in order for one to do science, you need to be inside a university. What we now need to focus on is the diversity of expertise that is on this planet! It is time to start recognising the communities on the fringes of science and how they science happen. Software developers, glass blowers, app builders, instrument makers, citizens with different background and skills – they are all part of the scientific process.

Citizen science is one movement that is allowing this to happen, and the web is a key component of this. Francois Grey and the Citizen Cyberscience Centre is a central mover and shaker in this field. He has helped initiate many citizen science projects like the Citizen Cyberlab that look to get non-traditional scientists involved with many different scientific fields from particle physics to synthetic biology. Galaxy Zoo has had millions of citizens help classify thousands of images from space.

This has really driven the field of science on the web right to the forefront. Because you are using citizens, you need to make your science open. The Ornithology Lab at Cornell is one place that is hugely benefitting from this and hopefully many more can too. Citizen science can take what is being examined in a lab to places that the scientist themselves would never be able to go.

Another force standing in the way is the concept of money and IP and having your ideas stolen. The concept can easily be resolved: by making science more open, it no longer has commercial value. It is currently not always a shared commodity that can benefit more people.

One excellent question was asked about funding, during the Q&A at the end of the session. In Britain, funding for science is scarce, and so people hold on to their ideas, research and work with clenched fists, unwilling to let it go for free. How can this be stopped? It is precisely this holding on that is standing in the way. We need to remove this culture of “this is all mine” and share what we learn. Reciprocation will follow: ‘what’s mine is yours ‘will help stimulate collaboration. Two heads are better than one and all that.

Francois Grey mentioned that Open Science should be careful about how it tackles the institution of science. At the moment, science is a closed system, many years behind the way society is moving, and it is stuck there, and has for many years refused to budge. His recommendations are to come at it from the side, to take the small opportunities that will allow open science to work well, and then build up from there.

So really what needs to happen is for people to start collaborating, and for there to be a more fluid way for people to do so. And this is what the Mozilla Lab is hoping to enable. But they can’t do it without the help of the community. Without people talking about the session and spreading the word, this may become a fruitless session. So this is my contribution. Please share and comment and add to this post on anything that you felt was interesting that I missed or forgot!

For more thoughts and discussions on open science at the Mozilla Festival, it is definitely worth following the Twitter hashtag#mozfest