- Why are you interested in supporting OCSDNet?
I think that open research is important for a number of reasons: You can have more people actively involved in the research process. You can get the public involved. You democratize research and level the playing field. If you open the process up you can do better science, faster. Open research has no geographical boundaries and allows you to work with everybody, which is incredibly liberating. Currently, the playing field is not level and there are big issues of resources, lack of awareness, differences in traditions and working practices, all of which may inhibit people from working together. If we really want to try and make the science meritocratic, then we have to make an effort to make sure everyone can be involved. Hopefully, the projects that are put forward by the OCSDNet will be proactive in making sure that people who are in less resourced environments are able to take part or lead. I think that if we can run effective projects and if we can combine the projects with some reflection so as to learn from them then there is a real chance to create lessons for how more people can get involved in future projects.
Allow me to relate to this on a personal level. About 10 years ago I gave a talk at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon. I thought that it would be great to establish a project where students in my lab and in Cameroon could work together using the internet as a collaborative medium. It was a perfectly fine idea, but the problem is a lack of basic resources: an un-level playing field. There were just so many things that were preventing people from getting involved and that was immensely restraining. I think to examine those things- why people can’t participate or ways in which people can – is really important for the next generation of students who are learning in these countries. If we can understand the problems then maybe we can fix them. If we can do that then people have the ability to collaborate on research projects in detail and in real time.
- What skills, insights and experiences do you bring to this initiative?
My background is in organic chemistry, which is an important part of the drug discovery and development process. A while back we did a project on improving a drug called praziquantel (PZQ), which is used to treat bilharzia [schistosomiasis] around the world. We were working on this with the World Health Organization to make this drug more active and less bitter, which is important for mass distribution programs. We did the project open source, which was a first. We put the problem out on the web and then worked on it in full public view so that our lab notebooks and all our ideas were shared and we allowed anyone to participate in the project. We got a lot of help from outside the core team, particularly from companies who helped to solve the problem much faster than had we done it on our own. That led to another project, which I am now working on with the Medicines for Malaria Venture, called Open Source Malaria (OSM). It’s a consortium of people who are working together completely openly with no secrecy to find new medicine for malaria that could be effective in treating this terrible disease. I should say that is now leading to a more general idea called Open Source Pharma: the idea that you could apply radical openness to the whole drug discovery process and take something from discovery all the way to the clinic without any secrecy at all.
I bring this experience of working in an open way on actual science projects. Most of the time is spent actually doing the science but we do have to spend time figuring out how to work in this way. There are different challenges when you have no walls around your project.
- How do you think that your own work will benefit from being involved with OCSDNet?
Being open allows you to involve both patients and researchers from endemic countries. One of the reasons to get involved in OCSDNet is to try and work out why it is that we are not very good at involving labs and students from endemic areas. I’d like to know that. I’d like to know more about the barriers and how we can involve people more effectively from countries that, so far, have not been involved in OSM. If students from any country could start contributing to the detail of the science because it’s all completely openly available online, it would be amazingly productive for everybody. Amazing in terms of the science, amazing in terms of the students from better-resourced environments and amazing for the students in less resourced environments because they might gain access to resources with minimal expense. It’s a win for everybody, but we have got to make sure that we are doing it right.
To learn more about Open Source Malaria and how Open Research works: