Open Science Left in the Dust

For a lot of fields other than computer science, open science is not a norm
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Go back to the second half of the 20th century, you see two countries locked in on a cosmic clash to dominate space, each keeping their cards close to their chests, to emerge victorious. But, today, there is a resounding call to open science for the world. Out of the 125,000 COVID-19-related scientific articles published within 10 months of the first confirmed case, more than 30,000 were hosted by preprint servers.  

“Most of the tools we use today are open source, and nowadays almost everything is Python-based,” said a postdoctoral fellow at the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute.  

Reality is still grim 

But, while open resources are becoming more widely used, there is still a significant barrier to achieving open science. According to an Open Science India report, a survey conducted among researchers revealed that only 36.74% of those who relied on openly available publications on the internet for their research shared their findings through open access repositories. Similarly, for data, the percentage of researchers who shared their findings openly was even lower, at 31.78%.

And this is not only limited to India. Abhishek Bajpayee, an MIT doctorate who has been vocal about building a future of open science, explains that for all fields other than computer science, open source is not a norm. He blames the lack of incentives and lack of proof points that can encourage researchers to go for open software projects despite the extra work involved in maintaining such projects for such a state. 

The practice of open science is not yet a mandatory requirement, so it ultimately comes down to the discretion of individual researchers or labs to decide whether to do it or not.

Besides the communitarian notion that open source will help advance science, there is an ethical reason given to it. “Majority of research is still funded by public funds. I think if the government is funding research, and most of the government research funding money comes from taxpayer money, it’s not unfair to say that there should be a requirement that whatever you produce should be released as open source,” he said. 

The realm of science is currently experiencing a crisis of reproducibility, wherein a significant number of published studies fail to withstand the test of replication when conducted with the same datasets. The push for open science will help counteract the “publish or perish” mentality of academic institutions which has led to journals printing embellished, flashy, positive results. 

But, despite the grim reality, there is a silver line. Governments around the world are currently taking steps to promote open science policies, and the Indian government is no exception. The draft of the new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policy for 2020, for instance, advocates for the development of an Open Science Framework. 

This framework aims to provide all stakeholders in the Indian STI ecosystem with equal access to a vast repository of scientific data, knowledge, and resources. Specifically, all data used in and generated from publicly-funded research will be made available under the FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) terms, thereby promoting open and equitable access to scientific knowledge.

Fast Tracking Progress  

Many nuclear science organisations have released open source software in recent years. The impact cannot be overstated. Recently, open source played a key role at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where researchers succeeded in creating a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that generated more energy than it took to cause the reaction—an achievement known as “ignition.”

Meanwhile, NASA uses a ton of open source software for its operations. Steve Crawford, in bringing them to light at the annual FOSDEM conference, pointed at the Mars ingenuity helicopter (successfully delivered to Mars in 2021) which uses open source flight-control software — the F Prime software, released in 2017 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. 

The James Webb Space Telescope, a project first conceived in the 1990s, also involved open source software. The telescope’s pre-launch testing for processes and software relied on publicly-available calibration code based on Python’s NumPy library.

“Open Source Software is critical to addressing NASA’s biggest challenges on climate change, exploring the solar system, and discovering life beyond Earth,” he said.  

What it takes, it also giveth back. NASA has its own open source software repositories in GitHub, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Space Telescope Scientific Institute. He estimated over 44,000 pieces of software has been released by different NASA researchers and missions. 

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) also maintains an archive holding a repository of all the science data from the Indian science missions, starting from Chandrayaan-1. This includes raw and reduced data, calibration data, auxiliary data, higher-level derived data products, documentation and software.

Moreover, the first ever image of a black hole taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) in 2019, was a work of twenty-three thousand people. Only hundreds of whom were formally related to EHT. The rest were those who write, maintain, and support the free and open-source software tools that researchers used in their work. 

Final Thoughts

Open science presents a multitude of possibilities, but despite its potential benefits, significant progress still needs to be made. To achieve this, it is necessary for research institutions to make it a requirement for open science practices. Michael Nielsen, one of the pioneers of quantum computation, says, scientists can “get involved in an open science project even if it’s a small fraction of their time, find forums online where they can share knowledge in ways that can allow people to build on that, and if they’re more ambitious, they can start an open science project of their own.” 

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Ayush Jain
Ayush is interested in knowing how technology shapes and defines our culture, and our understanding of the world. He believes in exploring reality at the intersections of technology and art, science, and politics.

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