Science Commons and Pasteur's Quadrant

I’m in Washington (in my favourite guest house in the US, Woodley Park Guest House (near the Zoo). It’s small and we all have breakfast together which gives a great atmosphere – so much better than the amorphous chain hotels. The only problem is it’s often full…)
I’m here for a meeting Creating a Vision for Making Scientific Data Accessible Across Disciplines run by Science Commons

a project of the non-profit Creative Commons, is the sponsor and organizer of the Commons of Science Conference. Our goal is to promote innovation in science by lowering the legal and technical costs of the sharing and reuse of scientific work. We remove unnecessary obstacles to scientific collaboration by creating voluntary legal regimes for research and development.

which I expect to be very exciting and useful.

“The Conference is an invitation-only gathering of scientists, policy makers, and commons advocates who are actively interested in designing ways to make access to scientific data more widely available and more transparent across all scientific disciplines. Anyone is welcome to read the Background information, Vision Papers, or browse the list of Conference participants.”

I have been reading the papers on the plane and I am impressed with the clarity and common views that are set out there. For example

Robert Cook-Deegan and Tom Dedeurwaerdere. 2006. The Science Commons in Life Science: Research: Structure, Function, and Value of Access to Genetic Diversity.

sets out clearly the battle for the public ownership of genomes, while

Paul A. David. 2004. Towards a Cyberinfrastructure for Enhanced Scientific Collaboration: Providing Its ‘Soft’ Foundations May Be the Hardest Part
argues that although we have made considerable technical progress on cyberinfrstructure / eScience we risk losing the value unless we can solve the social problems of collaboration such as IPR, liability and contractual working.

Several author’s mention Soke’s book “Pasteur’s Quadrant” (here is the blurb). I hadn’t come across this and it’s worth understanding it to start with. In simple terms Stokes argues that there are two axes to research, “pure” and “applied”. Bohr epitomises “pure”, Edison “applied” and Pasteur is both. (The “neither” quadrant ought to be uninhabitated…) Again several papers contrast the vision of Vannevar Bush’s view of the value of pure research and the incresing current move into Pasteur’s quadrant.

Read the papers yourself – it’s essential if you are interested in the balance between privatised information and public commons. They note that it was Merck, not the universities who kept the genome in the public commons – the universities would have supported the “tragedy of the anti-commons” – the piecemeal pivate ownership of myriads of small parcels of intellectual property.
Unfortunately for me most of this debate is centered on biosciences and geosciences. I don’t find many chemists who are concerned about their commons – witness the near-global chemical silence over PubChem.
However I think things are starting to change in the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the people in them realise that ownership and secrecy of information is not necessarily working. For example in Egon Willighagen’s blog he reviews “Can open-source R&D reinvigorate drug research” (doi:10.1038/nrd2131 closed access so you have to find it yourself) by Bernard Munos. This reviews the Open Source and Public-private efforts sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. It ends:

Other tools such as eMolecules, Jmol or the Chemistry Development Kit are adding powerful chemical search and visualization capabilities to the open-source scientist’s toolbox.

Thank you for the publicity! But perhaps you don’t realise that Jmol and CDK are written by unpaid volunteers, with other day activities (such as teaching and PhDs). At present pharma contributes essentially nothing to Open Source chemistry. I can personally list 2000 USD from Merck that we used to add code to Open Babel, but I’m not aware of any other pharma funding for Open Source software or data. Or any political support for the chemical commons (where were you all during PubChem? – I didn’t see a single voice from pharma – but you are all using it now…). Given Merck’s excellent track record on the genome, this looks like an oversight – perhaps this blog will help to bring it to people’s attention 🙂

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