Open Science makes the world a fairer place

Open Science and Open Access have become buzzwords we are hearing often these days. Fittingly, the value of Nordic and international cooperation in this field was discussed at the major NeIC 2019 conference Nordic Infrastructure for Open Science, held recently in Copenhagen. In connection with the conference, one of the pioneers of Nordic cooperation stated in an interview with NordForsk that Open Science makes the world a fairer place, where it is no longer just the wealthy who benefit from research.

“It is never possible to squeeze everything out of the data we have,” says John Renner Hansen, Dean of the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Science and Chairman of the Danish e-Infrastructure Cooperation (DeiC). “Once we start sharing data and see them through the eyes of others, we may immediately discover other ways to use them. There have been a wide array of cases where new solutions emerge when people view a scientific problem from different angles. It is enormously important to be able to reuse data.” We spoke to Professor Renner Hansen in his Frederiksberg office a few days after the NeIC 2019 conference Nordic Infrastructure for Open Science in Copenhagen.

In the professor’s view, the Open Access element of Open Science is of critical importance, as the world at present is a very divided one.

“This division between rich and poor means that those who can afford to buy access to the top publications are the ones who get the knowledge. This means that companies and wealthy universities can purchase access to knowledge, simply because they have the means. Meanwhile, small start-ups and knowledge institutions with fewer resources do not have the opportunity to gain insight into new information in the fields in which they operate.”

“But if we turn this around,” the professor elaborates, “we give everyone at the local level, rich and poor alike, equal access to new information. Which means that the world at large becomes a more open place in the sense that people in less wealthy countries have the chance to gain insight into the information being produced. This also applies to students, who can read relevant research articles without worrying about whether they can afford them. What we are talking about is spreading as much good information as possible. And I truly believe that Open Science makes the world a fairer place.”

Professor Renner Hansen adds: “It is appropriate to cite the letter that Niels Bohr sent to the UN General Assembly in 1950 about an open world, where he wrote, among other things, that a more open world would be a more peaceful world, and that the information that drives the development of society should be common knowledge for us all.”

Professor Renner Hansen is also an enthusiastic supporter of expanding Nordic and international cooperation on Open Science:

“Together, the Nordic countries are the world’s ninth-largest economy, with 27 million people. We are a major economic force with a high gross domestic product. The Nordic countries share a common cultural background, and think along similar lines socially and politically. Our common perspective makes it easy to get things started because we don’t have to explain our ethics and values and such. One example is how to deal with the ethical aspects involved in the use of Open Data through artificial intelligence, where it may not even be known which mechanisms select the specific data. In the Nordic countries we are well aware that there may be ethical problems associated with artificial intelligence. In China they do not have this kind of discussion at all.”

“Nordic added value lies in the ease of cooperation, the common understanding and the ability to work towards the same goals,” he concludes.

Effective Nordic e-infrastructure is a requirement for Open Science

Nordic cooperation was one of the main themes at the recent conference on Open Science in Copenhagen, where Professor Renner Hansen gave one of the keynote lectures. Prior to the conference, we met with Gudmund Høst, Director of the Nordic e-Infrastructure Collaboration (NeIC), who organised the conference together with the Danish e-Infrastructure Cooperation (DeiC). Dr Høst explains that a well-functioning e-infrastructure is a fundamental requirement for Open Science:

“Many consider e-infrastructure an invisible contribution to Open Science. But it is invisible because it works so well. It’s just there for us. NeIC provides many invisible contributions that facilitate research in the Nordic region, Europe and the world at large.”

Gudmund Høst agrees with Professor Renner Hansen with regard to the opportunities inherent in Nordic cooperation on Open Science:

“In the Nordic countries, Open Science efforts are carried out in small environments in small countries. At NeIC we believe that a joint Nordic collaborative effort would benefit all of us, because Open Science is also about maximising returns on public investment in research. By giving access to research data to others who may have completely different backgrounds, we see the data with fresh eyes. We believe this holds enormous potential for learning even more.” Dr Høst also pointed out that researchers are often granted funding to collect data which, in the end, they do not have time to analyse.

“Normally, this is dealt with by putting the data set in a drawer and pulling it out later when the time is right to work with it. The problem is often that the time never arrives. By making data available, others can have the opportunity to analyse them, ensuring that taxpayers’ money is not wasted. NeIC contributes to Open Science through a variety of data platforms that researchers can make use of. In practical terms, one of the things we do is develop software, as well as explain the optimal ways to use it.”

Nordic data extends beyond our own lifetime

In addition to giving people who work with e-infrastructure the opportunity to network with colleagues throughout the Nordic region, the Copenhagen conference was designed to help them to share knowledge and expertise. There were presentations of various types of Nordic e-infrastructure that facilitate research in areas such as climate, weather forecasting and health.

Jørn Kristiansen of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute presented a Nordic project that uses observational data from Nordic citizens for numerical weather prediction, which in the long term should provide improved weather forecasting. His presentation was a good example of unique cooperation between Nordic countries and between their national meteorological institutes. Such efforts have been made possible by taking advantage of Open Data from Norway, Sweden and Finland.

“Based on what we have achieved with Open Data in this project,” Jørn Kristiansen said from the conference stage, “I am a strong supporter of Nordic cooperation.”

Overall, the conference provided many examples of what can be achieved with good, reliable data across Nordic borders. For instance, Jan Svensson of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen, which among other things manages the global seed vault in Svalbard) explained how an integrated, Nordic-Baltic information management system makes data easily accessible to users. This is extremely useful in efforts to promote conservation and sustainable use of plants, livestock and forest resources as well as genetic diversity.

As a summary commentary on the many presentations, Lene Krøl Andersen, Head of the eScience Center at the Technical University of Denmark, delivered one of the most compelling arguments for why Open Science is so vitally important:

“These days at the conference have shown that each of the Nordic countries is sitting on unique data that will extend beyond our lifetime. Therefore, Open Science and Nordic research cooperation is the key to solving the many challenges we face today.


Open Science

“Open Science” is an umbrella term for eight different pillars, or approaches, to using information and disseminating information within science. The best-known approach at the moment is “Open Access”, which means ensuring that everyone is able to read scientific articles and access scientific results free of charge. Currently, it is possible for scientists to publish freely, but those who want access to that information must pay the publisher. This is what Open Access is attempting to change.

Open data

“Open Data”, another pillar under the Open Science umbrella, means ensuring access to data that has been collected using both public and private funds. According to John Renner Hansen, the concept of Open Data could be expanded to promote reasonable agreements with large companies to publish their data in an understandable framework so that others can use them and compile data within the same specialist community as well as across disciplines. This would enable researchers to compare social research data with scientific data, for example.

FAIR data

This pillar refers to ensuring that data is Findable, Accessible, Interoperable (usable within a context), and Reusable for computers.

By Jakob Chortsen, NordForsk