Visualizing The Future of Academics

This was a fun little project I made for a contest that was going on at my university, which asked for participants’ view of the ideal university, run by The Learner Centred Project. But this video is not really the whole story of my views. I really just see these as little suggestions; starting points for change. In addition to a greater embrace of the Internet, I really think that further specialization is a big part of the key to future success for Universities. There is real potential to have a blended system – with some entire universities focussed entirely on research, others focussed entirely on education, and some that do a bit of both. Germany has a network of academic institutes that focus entirely on research (Max Planck Institutes), and I think they stand as a good example for this sort of system.

In a previous post, Brian commented about the American trend of privatized science, and how a holistic approach is needed to improve the entire academic system. I agree. In general, I don’t think that any one change is going to successfully restructure the academic system – it is far too complicated for that to work. As with most big things, it will take a slow and steady series of small changes. It will continue to evolve. Universities have come a long way in the last century, and they will go even further this century.

I will close here, instead of making any more predictions (since most predictions turn out to be wrong..), and leave you with an open comments section and the question that got all of this started for me: what do you think the future of academia should look like?


Objects as Science Communication Catalysts

Fractal T-Shirt


I recently purchased this shirt (above) online. Some of you may be wondering what those cool designs are, and some of you may already know. In either case, I’ve realized after a while of owning this shirt that people want to talk about those designs – ask me what they are, or divulge their secret love of fractals.

I got into a little conversation with Kip Stewart, the person that made the design on the shirt (and got a cut of the profits from my purchase) through twitter, about the shirt (the Internet completely blows my mind when stuff like this happens). I mentioned that I talked to some people about fractals just from wearing the shirt, and then he said this:

 Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 7.04.48 AM

This was really the first time that I actively started thinking about the strange and wonderful ways of starting conversations around science through covertly placed props.

Objects can be a form of science communication.

There are tons of cool science shirts that can get people talking, like this one about the scientific h-index (a criticized measure of a scientists productivity), or many of Kip’s, but clothing is just the beginning. Lots of objects can be ‘upgraded’ to become instruments of science communication. Here are a few ideas that spring to mind:

  • Put some carnivorous plants in your office, it will get your visitors to ask about them. Before long, you’l be talking about nutrient cycling and evolutionary adaptations. Don’t worry, you’ll get back to work soon enough.
  • Any electronic or mechanical device that is made out of clear plastic and allows you to see the inside doubles as a game for the curious: how does it work and what are all those parts for?
  • Instead of painting a violent abstract, why not paint something like a microscopic view of sleeping sickness, or the Great Red Spot of Jupiter (a 300 year old storm several times the size of Earth). On your wall, you’ll have the invisible made visible, and your guests will have something to talk about.
  • I’d love to get a bathroom scale that you could set to simulate the effect of gravity of different planets on your measured weight. These calculations, in real time on a single scale. Like a smaller version of this:

    What is your weight on Mars? (Image from: )

Whatever the example (I bet you can come up with your own), integrating ‘sciencey’ objects into everyday life creates talking points that allow for everyone to learn something. With my new shirt, I’ve learned a thing or two about fractals, myself.


The Need for Open Science

I love science, but it is a bit of a mess. It is not very organized, it is not very fast, it has some bias, it isn’t very available to the public, and the people doing it don’t always talk to one another. These are just some of the problems that we need to acknowledge and try and solve. Luckily, the Internet is here to help change everything.

In more detail, here are some of the problems that science currently faces:

Science is Messy
Science is organized in a very simple way – each time an author writes a scientific paper, s/he refers to the journals that s/he found useful, via a citation. As Michael Nielsen put it in his book Reinventing Discovery, “citation is perhaps the most powerful technique for building an information commons that could be created with seventeenth-century technology”. In fact that is when it was created, and it hasn’t changed very much since. It is built for organization on paper publications, and hasn’t really been updated for the Internet. The literature is also littered with citations to findings in other papers that apparently don’t exist. Often, there is no adoption of standard methods, with standard units, in a common language that make results comparable across studies.

Science is Partly Hidden
Many research projects don’t result in findings that the researchers or journal editors think are exciting; it is just part of the scientific process. The problem arises when those findings aren’t published. Maybe the author has a more exciting manuscript that he would rather work on, or maybe the journals don’t want to publish such a ‘boring’ paper. Either way, this biases and polarizes the overall findings in the literature – we end up with papers that only strongly prove or disprove what they set out to look at. One problem that arises from this is known as the file drawer problem.

An equally troubling problem occurs for the manuscripts that actually are published. The manuscripts are published, but not the data. A century ago, publishing the data would have seemed absurd. But now, with the Internet, the question really becomes: why aren’t we? As meta-analyses demonstrate, there is way more information locked away in most studies than the original authors pull out, and more importantly, by pooling data from large numbers of studies, it is more possible to see the bigger picture this way. By not publishing this data somewhere on the Internet, in some sort of organized fashion, we are essentially throwing out a lot of hard-earned work.

Scientists aren’t Sharing Very Well
In the age of social media, the people have largely embraced the ability to talk to one another and share ideas and information freely. Sadly, this doesn’t yet include most scientists. Many scientists are afraid of talking with one another too much for fear that someone will steal their ideas and publish them first. This is why they sometimes hoard their data, and keep entire studies a secret at least until they are published.

Aside from sharing with one another, they are also not yet very good at making articles accessible to the public. Sure, if you are a student, then you have access to a lot of the scientific literature, and if not, you can still get a lot by going through the library (if you live near one). But the fact that someone can’t easily access publicly funded research because articles are locked behind expensive pay-walls is more than frustrating.

Reinventing Discovery
Image from the cover of the book by Michael Nielsen

An Open Science Revolution is at Hand
At a fundamental level, I really think that these are all issues of poor science communication, which is why I find them particularly fascinating. But, I’m not here to leave here on a negative note – that just isn’t my style. I set up this website to discuss how we can go forward and improve the openness of science, so just stay tuned, because I’m very optimistic about this. A quiet revolution is fundamentally changing the way humans make discoveries, through:
– An explosion of open-access journals like PLOS
– Citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo
– Data sharing websites like figshare
– Journals that are pushing to publish negative results, like the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine
– Researcher-focussed social media sites like ResearchGate
– Online lab notebooks like Carl Boettiger’s
– Dozens of other initiatives that you can check out at Digithead’s Lab Notebook or the Open Science Wiki

If you simply can’t wait for me to read more about this topic, I am happy to recommend Michael Nielsen’s book Reinventing Discovery. As a manifesto for a new kind of discovery, called Networked Science, it really lights the imagination on what is possible when Open Science is embraced.

I’ve barely scratched the surface with what I think are some of the important issues, but I want to know what you think I was silly to have left out – leave it in the comments!