That was the core message of a speech by Science Commons’ John Wilbanks at the Open Access and Research Conference 2008 a few weeks ago in Brisbane, Australia. The conference was an opportunity both to celebrate Australia’s burgeoning leadership in harnessing open approaches for advancing science and scholarship, and to talk about where the global open access (OA) movement is headed.
Thanks to the Web, we can gain knowledge about a meeting happening thousands of miles away. Then we can read what others thought of the meeting.
Here’s an excerpt from an article by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Anna Sellah on the speech, which provides a succinct summary of the reasons why open approaches are vital for deriving value from the vast amounts of scientific data being produced:
“The value of any individual piece of knowledge is about the value of any individual piece of lego,” Wilbanks said in a keynote address to the Open Access and Research Conference held in Brisbane last week.
“It’s not that much until you put it together with other legos.”
He says the ability to connect knowledge brings scientific revolutions. For example Watson and Crick’s breakthrough on the structure of DNA involved them reading all the scientific papers on nucleotide bonding and encoding it in the form of a physical model, says Wilbanks.
But this kind of “human scale” analysis is no longer feasible in an age when automated laboratory processes generate vast amounts of information faster than the human mind can process it.
“For example, we have 45,000 papers about one protein or one gene,” says Wilbanks.
He says a scientist might once have analysed the impact of one drug on one gene, but now pipetting robots are capable of analysing 25,000 genes at a time.
“Most of the research says the smartest of us can handle five or six independent variables at once – not 25,000,” he says
Those of you following news of the conference and developments in Australia may also be interested in Open Oz and Doing things with data, two posts by OA leader Dr. Alma Swan, who was also a keynote speaker at the event.
Social netowwrks evolved to deal wit large problems containing many variables (i.e. “what signs are present indicating that its save to plant?”) If we can have large groups examine the problem, many more variables can be looked at. A question would be “Does the number of variables increase linearly with network size or exponentially?”