Science in crisis
Scientists – and science generally – are in a moment of crisis on multiple fronts. The gap between science and society has grown to a chasm, with disastrous consequences for issue after issue. For example, just last month, Tennessee passed legislation permitting creation “science” into classrooms. On another front, the concern of Americans about global warming has dramatically declined over the past decade, despite the scientific consensus on the clear and present danger caused by climate change.
But science illiteracy in the general public isn’t the only crisis in science. Funding for research is becoming increasingly unattainable, with funding rates at their lowest levels in a decade at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the two most important American science agencies (see here and here for details). The situation in many other nations is no better. In Spain, for example, science spending by the central government has fallen by 20% since 2009. Even worse, research funding from traditional sources will likely be even harder to come by in the years to come due to ongoing economic instability around the world.
A useful and well-written summary of open access to publications in the medical field triggered some thoughts I’d like to share. The thrust of the article was that doctors need more access to a wide range of journal publications in order to make better decisions. The article also praises NIH’s open access policy, which has inspired the NSF and many journals.
My additional points are:
- Open publication adds to the flood of information already available to most doctors, placing a burden on them to search and filter it. IBM’s Watson is one famous attempt to approach the ideal where the doctor would be presented right at the point of care with exactly the information he or she needs to make a better decision. Elsewhere, I have reported on a proposal to help experts doctors filter and select the important information and provide it to their peers upon demand–a social networking approach to evidence-based medicine.
- Not only published papers, but the data that led to those research results should be published online, to help researchers reproduce the results and build on them to make new discoveries. I report in an earlier article on this site about the work of Sage Bionetworks to get researchers to open their data. Of course, putting up raw data leaves many challenges: one has to be careful to deidentify it according to accepted standards. One has to explain the provenance of the data carefully: how it was collected and massaged (because data sets always require some culling and error-correction) so it can be understood and properly reused. Finally, combining different data sets is always difficult because they are collected under different conditions and with different assumptions.
What if you had access to all of the medical research in the world? Or better yet, what if the physician treating your particularly complex or rare condition had access to the latest research? Or what if a public health organization in your community could access that research to inform policymakers of measures to advance public health?
“Wait,” you may think, “can’t they already access that research? Doesn’t the Internet make that possible?” While unfortunately the answer to the first question is “No,” fortunately the Internet can make such access possible. As it is today, most physicians and public health professionals have very limited access to health research, almost all of which is published online. Only about a quarter of the research published today ends up being available to those working outside of universities, where libraries subscribe to a good proportion of the research journals.
So, what are these health professionals missing? What difference to their work would access to research make? Cheryl Holzmeyer, Lauren Maggio, Laura Moorhead and I seek to answer these questions with a new National Science Foundation study for which we are currently recruiting physicians and staff of public health NGOs.
We seek to demonstrate the difference it makes to the daily work of these health professionals to have easy electronic access to all the biomedical and public health research – or at least that large proportion held by Stanford University Library – for a period of eleven months (with one month of limited access as a control). To assess the impact of this access, we provide participants with a special portal to the research literature and track when and what research is viewed, while following up with interviews on the use and value of this access.