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Open and transparent science could lead to unprecedented progress

The world is poised for a collaborative era of science, which may lead to more developments that benefit the public.

In April 2020, Meltem Yucel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and intern at Cornell University’s Sage School of Philosophy, learned of an enticing research project via a tweet.

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Meltem Yucel, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at Duke University Psychology and intern at Cornell University’s Sage School of Philosophy

Dr. Jay van Bavel, a psychology professor at New York University, was calling for collaborators from around the world to study the role of national identity in supporting public health policies during a pandemic.

Yucel, who is Turkish, responded that she could help with data collection and translation in Turkey — as long as van Bavel didn’t mind her working remotely in the United States.

He didn’t. Yucel joined a team of 200-plus researchers across 67 countries who collaborated virtually. During the pandemic, she was also able to virtually attend lab meetings at Cornell and Harvard — something that didn’t often happen before COVID-19, she says.

“Once everyone realized we couldn’t be in the lab anymore and everything was moved online, it opened the door for involving other researchers that were not physically there,” she explains.

Science has always been a team sport, but the scientific community appears more willing to share data and materials than before the pandemic, Yucel says. Open science — a movement to make scientific research, including publications, data and software, accessible to all — is gaining traction, in part because of how effectively transparency and partnership drove lifesaving scientific breakthroughs during COVID-19.

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A spirit of openness, coupled with conferencing tools and open source-style software, could be laying the groundwork for science’s most collaborative — and transformative — era yet. This could have prodigious implications for the public, who will likely benefit from scientific advancements, as well as the ability to more easily access the data behind scientific findings.

More equitable and accessible research
To Yucel, open science means gathering reproducible, credible findings that everyone has access to, including the general public.

This view complements another movement: civic science, the idea that scientists should listen to and collaborate more with the people who are impacted by their work in order to focus on the areas that will benefit people the most. The Civic Science Fellows program, for example, strives to create new collaborations that allow scientists and researchers to more meaningfully connect with diverse communities.

An equally important component is making it easier for people of all genders, racial and ethnic groups, and income levels to participate in science — as scientists. With the goal of making her field of study, psychology, more accessible, Yucel created Psych Research List, a website that lists resources to help undergraduate students advance their careers, such as paid internships, scholarships, and virtual graduate courses. Often, students won’t hear about these opportunities unless they are plugged into the right networks, she explains. Her site helps level the playing field.

A more inclusive and collaborative generation of scientists will naturally usher in change. But you can’t overstate the importance of technology.

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“When people think about collaborative science, they immediately think of Zoom, and they should,” says Dr. Gabi Hanna, CEO and founder of Lamassu Pharma, a biopharmaceuticals development firm focused on using translational research to accelerate the development of novel therapeutics.

Remote collaboration tools, including video conferencing, have “effectively opened borders for scientists and researchers across the world,” he says. Learning from the trial and error of more scientists and creating more interdisciplinary teams could help speed up the rate of discoveries that would improve people’s health, safety, and daily lives. 

Progress at the (new) speed of science

Another factor that bodes well for scientific progress is shortened drug development timelines.

“Researchers and the public around the world have now seen that safe drug development is possible in a fraction of the time typically required — in the U.S., drug approvals can take 10 to 12 years — if we share knowledge, focus on common goals and priorities, and search for pathways forward rather than giving up at the first roadblock,” Hanna says.

Advancements in the way clinical trials are conducted could also contribute to faster discoveries of information and treatments that could help real people. Researchers had no choice but to adopt decentralized trials and remote monitoring practices during the pandemic. Many of these changes led to less arduous processes for patients, for example, by reducing the number of in-person visits, or allowing them to participate in research outside of their geographic area. Decentralized trials also accelerated the development and adoption of data-sharing platforms and processes that will continue to benefit research.

The hurdles that stand in the way
All of this is not to say science’s digital transformation is without challenges. Determining how to securely share data across departments and companies while respecting patient and data privacy is an ongoing concern.

James C. Foster, chairman, president and CEO of Charles River Laboratories

James C. Foster, chairman, president and CEO of Charles River Laboratories, a Wilmington, Mass.-based pharmaceutical company, notes “collaborative science has to happen responsibly and with appropriate oversight.”

“While global collaboration of research data is improving, a major barrier to the widespread application of knowledge sharing in health care is the decision to work with hugely sensitive information and requires timely information and action,” says Dr. Jurgi Camblong, CEO and founder of SOPHiA GENETICS, creator of a cloud-based SaaS platform for analyzing data to improve health outcomes and economics.

Another challenge is lab standardization. Labs use a wide range of technologies, algorithms, and sample sources. Camblong believes that for breakthrough medical research to occur, labs need to replicate laboratory procedures, which requires labs to standardize protocols for sample collection and standard metrics for analysis.

“If they were to standardize data, harmonized researchers could produce desperately needed solutions in record time with peers working in labs across the globe,” he says.

Scientific cultural components cannot be overlooked either. Foster suggests reducing the stigma around failures, reframing them as opportunities.

“The competitive nature of the research community has created a culture where successes are vocalized and failures are concealed,” he explains. “In reality, much of the information that is pursuant to failure needs to be shared openly. As researchers, our ability to learn from the prior failures of others and move forward is exceptionally important.”

Hanna worries about drug development resuming pre-pandemic paces.

“We gained an incredible momentum towards changing the drug development timeline with the COVID-19 vaccines, but we also saw grave concern over the speed of development,” he says. “As a global scientific and medical community, we are losing that momentum, and once gone, I am not sure what it will take to rebuild it.”

Like in many industries, the hurdles holding back scientific progress are “people continuing to perpetuate the way things have been done, simply because that’s the way things have been done,” Camblong says. “True growth comes with at least some disruption.”

Operating in a bubble may give an institution the illusion their achievement is more significant, he says, but as we have learned during COVID-19, “we can fight better in unison.”

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

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