Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Changing structure of scientific inquiry

At ESA the other week (this post got slowed down by my now traditional post ESA cold), I attended an intriguing symposium on Ecoinformatics that led my thoughts in an interesting direction. Ecoinformatics (short for Ecological informatics) is, broadly, concerned with solving the technological challenges of making the increasing wealth of ecological data broadly available, accessible, and analyzable (?). In the symposium, several presentations were given on different efforts to unite existing ecological databases (DataONE) and to create a system for authors to submit datasets related to their publications (Dryad - which currently focuses on evolutionary biology, not ecology specifically).

This second project I find particularly exciting. There are many challenges that need to be worked out to make it a reality, but I really just want to comment on a few of the things that I found especially cool:

1) Authors will be expected to submit properly formatted and annotated data related to their papers for archival at the time they submit papers for publication. If done well, with an appropriate system, this means lots of cool data available to the scientific community allowing many interesting synthesis and modeling projects, and potentially fostering many cool collaborations. (Obviously lots of interesting challenges involving appropriate citations, etc, embargoing sensitive data or allowing authors more time to publish follow up papers, infrastructure issues, funding, etc.)

2) I was amused thinking about how this would mark a further step in the Ford-ification of Science; already within big lab groups, PI's have Big Ideas and write grants and get funding that supports various post docs and grad students and technicians who experiment, collect data, and analyze it. Open access data sets could compartmentalize science even more, making it totally possible to do great science and synthesis without ever collecting data. Fascinating to think about. Specialization can bring rewards in terms of skill levels at particular tasks, and increased efficiency, along with new challenges, such as making sure that appropriate data are gathered, and that communication between roles is good.

Anyways; fun to think about.

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