Friday, August 12, 2016

My Data, Your Data


The Allen Institute for Brain Science released a landmark set of data [..] it contains a vast array of recordings from the bit of cortex that deals with vision [..] The release of this data took a privately funded institute. It could not have come from a publicly-funded scientist. It is a striking case-study in how modern science is worryingly broken, because it prioritises private achievement over the public good [..]

Most scientists would never even contemplate such a manoeuvre. Research needs grants to fund it, and grants need papers. Promotion needs papers. Tenure need papers. Postdoc positions need papers. Even PhD studentships need papers now, God help us all. Everything needs bloody papers. (Which works well for people like me who enjoy writing; but is a distinct disadvantage for talented scientists who don’t.)

(Last semester, we even got a Faculty-wide email encouraging us to write up our Master’s students’ project work for publication. Because what science needs right now is more unfinished crap.)
Data makes papers. Data makes grants. Who would ever release data without first writing up a paper? Who would fund grants to work on data that you’ve already released? Which committees recognise “releasing data” as a principal output when looking for a new job candidate or a promotion? Or assessing the research quality of a university?

This all means I’m feeling rather ambivalent about the “Brain Observatory” data. On the one hand, I deeply admire that the philanthropic principles of the Allen Institute extend to giving away their data for free. On the other hand, I’m deeply sad that it takes a billionaire software designer’s philanthropy to make such a thing happen.