In That Dawn

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive..."
— Wordsworth

Jerome Ravetz's recent article How should we treat science's growing pains? made me realize something about open science. He writes:

[Science]'s present problems can be explained partly by the transformation from the 'little science' of the past to the 'big science' or 'industrialised science' of the present...

There are two familiar qualitative aspects of the steady quantitative growth of the scientific enterprise. The first is the loss of 'Gemeinschaft', where all communities...have become so large that personal acquaintance no longer dominates in the professional relationships. The old informal systems of rewards and sanctions are no longer effective. Under the new 'Gesellschaft' conditions, such intimate tasks of governance must be made 'objective'. Ironically, applying a 'scientific' methodology to the tasks of governance of science leads directly to corruption, since any such system can be gamed. Allied to that development is a second one, the hugely increased capital-intensity of science, so that the typical context of discovery is no longer the scientist with his [sic] test-tube, but a large lab with division of labour on an industrial scale...

Just as this new system was becoming dominant, by a cruel accident of fate a third element has intruded: stasis. The social subsystem of science whereby it reproduces itself, namely the training and certification of postgraduates, depends on the possibility of recruitment of at least a significant minority... [W]hen...that prospect vanishes, recruitment stalls, and the existing corps of researchers is squeezed, many pathologies inevitably ensue. The obvious one is the proletarianisation of research work. Recruits (and teachers) face the prospect of a lifetime sequence of short-term jobs on contracts...Maintaining the lofty ideals of independence and integrity becomes increasingly difficult.

"...all communities...have become so large that personal acquaintance no longer dominates..." "...the typical context of discovery is no longer the scientist with his [sic] test-tube, but a...division of labour on an industrial scale..." Maybe that's what we're really rebelling against: not the lack of reproducibility, or our inability to re-use our colleagues' data, but the loss of community. Maybe the fact that the same people show up over and over again at open science meetings isn't a weakness, but a reason to be there: after all, it's more fun to be part of a tight-knit band of rebels than it is to be a faceless drone working for the empire they're trying to overthrow.

Ravetz's article may also explain why so many people in open science are drawn to open source software. It isn't so that they can check each other's code—as far as I can tell, scientists still don't do that to any significant degree. Instead, it's that when you're building something new, you can do something on a human scale that actually matters. As just one example, the Jupyter Notebook is a big deal in open science, but it's a lot smaller than a particle accelerator or space telescope, which means everyone who works on it can see the difference they're making.

Nobody becomes a scientist in order to figure out how to increase the frequency resolution of a linear chirp filter. We become scientists because it's an adventure. Open science is still new enough—still open enough—that individuals can still feel that. And it's still small enough that you can look left and look right and recognize the faces you see, and recognize the same excitement on them that you feel yourself.

Later: I got mail overnight about this post from someone who follows me on Twitter who said that they wished the "open" in "open source" and "open science" meant "actually open to all comers". They pointed me at this depressing story I'd retweeted about a woman's experience at a recent high-performance computing conference, and at this picture from a meeting about engineering academic software where their presence would apparently have increased the number of visible minority participants from zero to one, and asked whether I thought they had the same freedom I did to build something new, and whether I thought they could look left and look right and recognize themselves in the faces they saw. The honest answers are "no" and "no"...

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