SPARC Innovator: Michael Nielsen

Michael Nielsen tours like a rock star.   

But the 37-year-old, Australian quantum physicist rejects the notion that he is a rock star of Open Science. “There are many, many people who are doing this, as it should be,” says Nielsen, listing other thinkers in the field. “It’s not a concept that anybody owns. It goes back to the 17th century.”  For real change to happen in the culture of science, he says, it will take more than one or a few people; it will take thousands working together.

While Nielsen is not alone in promoting the open sharing of data and research to advance science, he has been in the spotlight this fall as an advocate for the cause. The Open Society Foundations supported sending him on an awareness-raising tour on Open Science. In three months, Nielsen did 33 talks in 17 cities - from small gatherings of high school students in Lithuania to a 1,000-plus audience in Canada. (The recording on ted.com of his presentation at TEDxWaterloo has received more than 150,000 hits.) 

Nielsen also went on a month-long book tour to promote his book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science (Princeton University Press, 2011), with the offices of Google, Microsoft and the Seattle Town Hall among his stops.

“I’d like for there to be a broad public discussion of Open Science and of the idea that publicly funded science should be Open Science,” says Nielsen. “The only way to cause such a discussion is to get out there and really talk to people.” 

For being a thought leader of how doing science in the open can promote change and bringing the discussion to a new level, SPARC honors Nielsen as the January 2012 SPARC Innovator. “Michael is an incredibly bright scientist and researcher in his own right,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC. “But he also has a view beyond 30,000 feet of the entire scientific enterprise, and the value that open brings to the table.” Nielsen has found a way to engage the general public in this issue to understand why it matters. In his push to open up the scientific process, he has helped advance the entire open-access movement. “He is a voice into the mainstream that has been sorely lacking,” says Joseph.

Make the case in an accessible manner

Before policies and tenure processes can change regarding open science, the groundwork needs to be done. That’s what Nielsen has helped start on his tour, says Melissa Hagemann, senior program manager at the Open Society Foundations. Being a scientist first gives Nielsen instant credibility with audiences, she says.  But he’s also developed a knack for connecting with the broader community. “He’s very good at incorporating stories into his presentation, which helps people relate to it,” she says. “In talking about how the average citizen can begin to participate in open science, and that there is a role for everyone to play. That’s a really compelling message.”

In setting up the speaking engagements, Nielsen put the word out on his blog and there were more requests than he could meet, says Hagemann. The tour generated “incredibly positive press,” with more articles and interviews than OSF had hoped for, she adds.

In one particularly good week this fall, Nielsen’s book was named as one of the top books of 2011 in the Financial Times and the U.K. minister of education mentioned him in a speech as an example of what the country can aspire to with innovation in the future. Reinventing Discovery was reviewed widely, including mention in The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and the New York Journal of Books. The book was also named by the Boston Globe as one of the best science books of the year.

“What Michael has done is taken the time to think deeply and really sort out what the major issues are that need to be considered – and what are the sidetracks,” says Cameron Neylon, a biochemist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, England, whose path has crossed with Nielsen in open-access advocacy. “He’s very much a synthesizer and integrator of ideas and concepts. He can identify trends and understand the larger context that they fit into.”

Nielsen is able to describe and articulate complex issues through stories in a way that opens people’s minds and leads important discussions, says Neylon. “He’s provided a level of intellectual rigor and framework that has allowed the community to move rapidly from a disparate group of individuals and institutions through to where there is a clear understanding of what the position are,” he says. “He’s really sharpened the message.”

The path to advocacy

Nielsen’s fascination with the open sharing of information can be traced back to the 1980s when he was a teenager in Australia.  He read a book, The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler that inspired him to think big about the possibility of technology.

At age 15, he wrote a letter to the prime minister calling for fiber optic cable to be installed in every home so citizens could experience true open government. “I thought it was very cool,” he recalls of the notion of direct democracy.

When the Web came along in the 1990s, Nielsen says he thought it would revolutionize science - it was just a matter of time. While it did make a big difference to science, Nielsen became frustrated with the slow pace of change.

Advocating for Open Science was just a hobby for years when he was a professor of quantum information sciences at the University of Queensland.  He moved to Toronto for a new job and took some time off in between positions to reflect on what he really wanted to do. He decided Open Science was a larger, more critical problem that merited his attention over being a scientist. He got the idea of writing a book in 2007 and in May of that year cranked out the first draft in three weeks. “It was terrible, of course,” Nielsen says of the 110-page original manuscript.  He went through more drafts that he cares to admit in 3 ½ years before completing Reinventing Discovery. Although he had written “a couple thousand pages” of technical material, writing a book with broader appeal was a challenging and, sometimes painful, experience.

Nielsen says initial feedback on the manuscript was positive. He did nearly all of his research in the open, sharing links to the papers and other sources using FriendFeed and his blog. He says he benefitted from discussion with hundreds of people from all over the world. The response to the finished product has been very pleasing to Nielsen. “Partially because it has this legitimate impact to see terms of open science in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian,” says Nielsen. “The fact that it’s being taken seriously with people from the outside is good for Open Science.”

Changing the science culture

Nielsen says he’s too close to the book or presentations to comment on why they seem to resonate so broadly with the public. But he’s always liked to think in concrete terms and perhaps conveying his position through stories has made it accessible to a general audience, he says.  “I distrust abstract arguments alone,” says Nielsen. “I like to gather lots of examples and then I can start to test the abstract argument against those examples.”

In the question-and-answer sessions following his presentations, Nielsen isn’t argumentative with the skeptics; he welcomes the discussion. “Open Science is not something you get convinced about by a short argument,” says Nielsen. “There are a whole lot of complicated issues and it’s right to take some time to work through it.” What Nielsen is trying to do is plant the idea and, hopefully, to get the person to think about the concept.   From academic to general audiences, Nielsen says he was pleased to see so many people seriously engaging in the issue. Those who have heard him, including Neylon, say Nielsen is persuasive, and gets audience members to think the change in the culture of science – though difficult, is possible.

“We want to change the values of individual scientists so they start to see it as part of their job to be sharing their data, to be sharing their code and their best ideas and problem,” said Nielsen in his talk at TedxWaterloo. “If we can do this change in values, we will indeed see individual scientists rewarded for doing these things, there will be incentives.” He reminds the audience that culture changes in science have happened before, in the time of Galileo and other discoverers.

“He has the credibility that opens doors,” says John Dupuis, head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University in Toronto.  “Since he is not an active scientist anymore, he has the time and focus to bring to the advocacy, along with that credibility from his scientific reputation, to be able to make a huge impact.”

Dupuis was one of those early reviewers of Nielsen’s book. “The book is really an amazing call to action for increased openness for science in a way that’s really accessible and entertaining,” he says.

What’s next for Nielsen? After so much travel, he hoped to spend a long vacation with his wife and fellow scientist, Jen Dodd, reflecting on his next steps.  He might start a non-profit that can further build tools for open science. Or, he may work more broadly on Open Knowledge. He enjoys talking to college students in different disciplines about what Open Science means.  To no one’s surprise, he says: “I have a long list of ideas.”

 

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