Frank Miedema: Coronavirus shows just how important open science is

Foto: UU

Something special happened when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out: almost all publishers put society’s interest above their own and made scientific publications and data concerning the Coronavirus freely accessible to everyone, so that knowledge would spread quickly. To Miedema, this is open science at its best. He believes all knowledge should be shared in this manner, which is why he is the chair of Science in Transition, an action group whose mission is to build a better society by making science more accessible. Miedema also leads Utrecht University’s Open Science programme, which aims to propagate the ideal to all UU faculties, so that the research conducted in Utrecht becomes as open as possible.

Have you ever concealed data that you should have shared?
"I used to work as an AIDS researcher in Amsterdam in the 1980s. We once followed a cohort of homosexual men to see how the disease spread and when the HIV infection led to AIDS. At the time, it was quite usual to keep this kind of data to yourself. We thought: ‘this is our data, these are our blood samples, we want to keep researching this for years to come’. To think that was all made possible with public funding! In hindsight I think: ‘my God, what were we doing?’”

If the importance of open science is so obvious, why doesn't it just happen 'naturally'?
"Because we are not yet rewarding scientists enough for it. On the contrary: when it comes to grants and nominations, the deciding factor is usually whether you have published in certain major journals. The problem is we hardly have time in science to read each other's articles, but we can quickly see where they have been published, and that’s how we assign value to them. As a result, we lose sight of the reason why we actually do science and whom we should share our insights with. If you conduct socio-psychological research into the subsidence of houses in Groningen, for example, you will definitely not get published in the big American journals. Does that mean we should stop researching that topic? We also have to reward people for excellent research that doesn’t appear in Nature or Science.”

Maybe scientists don't think it's wise to share all their data. 
"Of course you’re not going to share military secrets or privacy-sensitive data. The standard should be ‘open if possible, closed if necessary’.”

Politicians and businesses often pick and choose data that fits their own interests. Is open science suitable om a world where not everybody is honest?
"That is a dilemma, but it works both ways. If we don't release the data, people won't be able to find out what science is based on and they won't see how, for example, climate change deniers are twisting the facts. We cannot escape the debate. The time when people simply believed what scientists said – if ever there was such a time – is over. That’s why virologists now have to explain, over and over again, why we need to keep distance from each other, or why vaccines protect us.”

So open science is not just about sharing data, it’s about explaining data as well.
"Take the vaccine for cervical cancer, which came out about ten years ago. Its creators were shocked: we finally had a vaccine that protected against cancer, but many parents said they would not let their daughters be vaccinated. Those parents aren’t crazy, they have all sorts of concerns that should be discussed. They say, for example, that a twelve-year-old girl is too young to be having a conversation about unprotected sex. Religious parents, on the other hand, say that women within their faith only have sex after marriage, so there is no need for a vaccine. If you want to convince those people – and that won’t always be possible – you'd better give them insight into your data.”

This sounds optimistic.
"I’m from the seventies. That time was all about major themes such as inequality, world peace, and the environment. Academia lost some of those major political and social themes in the last thirty years or so, but they are making a comeback now. Science should reflect on its relationship with society, be it history, medicine, cattle breeding, you name it.”

I suppose disciplines like medicine are already doing that?
"You would think so, but we used to say ‘the further away from the patient, the smarter you are’. Take, for example, research into strokes. My older brother had a stroke when he was 62 and he was never able to speak a word again. That’s when I realized how important research into rehabilitation is. Fortunately, 90% of stroke victims survive such a cerebral infarct, but many of them have to learn how to live with disabilities afterwards. If you investigate how strokes occur, using molecular research and large devices, you’re sure to get published by the top journals. But research into rehabilitation is not regarded in the same way. This isn’t an academic problem, but rather a problem of attention, money, and respect.”

Doesn’t this have much more to do with 'recognising and appreciating' than with ‘open science’?
"The two themes are inextricably linked. The researcher’s engagement with society is an important driver of open science. It all begins with the question of what research you are going to do and it ends with freely accessible articles and open data.”

Can you uphold open science as an ideal when countries like China and Russia do not participate in it but still benefit from it?
"That is indeed a dilemma. Should we share data with Russia if they don’t make their research into a Covid-19 vaccine public? However, I believe working with researchers from those countries is actually beneficial for them. Researchers from the global South also think that richer countries are keeping their knowledge from them. But we are working on such dilemmas. We shouldn’t be naïve, of course, but we shouldn’t give up on open science either”