posted Dec 8, 2016, 11:39 AM by Kevin Esvelt
updated Dec 26, 2016, 8:12 AM
Most researchers keep their plans to themselves for a very good reason: the system punishes us if we don't. Share a brilliant idea, and another laboratory can throw more money and hands at the problem, publish first, and claim all of the credit.
Secretive research is not just wasteful and inefficient from the perspective of society. It's actively miserable for practicing scientists. Because no one shares the results of failed experiments, different labs fall into the same pit traps over and over again. We never hear about new successes or techniques until the project is complete, so it can take years to find out that the potential collaborator with a key piece of the puzzle was always just down the street. Since we only have the vaguest idea what others are working on, we always worry that someone else might be working on the same project. If they get there first, we've been 'scooped' and typically get nothing. Even if we publish first, we've still wasted years on a project that someone else would have completed soon afterwards. Paranoid secrecy may be fun in a game; less so when your life's work is at stake.
The harsh truth is that no one would rationally design the current scientific enterprise. It evolved in the time before modern communication technologies, and persists due to cultural traditions and a collective action problem. It's as though we're still sending out competing teams of explorers who still insist on returning with maps and reports every few years... even though all of them now have satellite uplinks.
That would be bad enough, but there's more. Our civilization, being unsustainable, quite literally depends on new technological advances. Those advances are getting more powerful with time. But who decides whether an advance will be positive or negative? The small team of ultra-specialist explorers, who can't reliably anticipate the consequences on their own.
There's evidence that risk analyses involving local citizens produce more comprehensive results than teams of expert risk analysts, even as judged by those same experts. But in an age of increasing dependence on successively more powerful technologies, we still practice science much as we did a century ago – that is, mostly blind to the ongoing efforts of others and any attempts to assess consequences. It's mind-bogglingly shortsighted, and a testament to the power of the status quo bias and collective action problems.
Of course, this doesn't mean we should reform all of science immediately, even if we could. We have a limited ability to predict the consequences of altering complex systems, including the scientific enterprise. That means we should start small, carefully measure outcomes, and only scale up if warranted.
The field of gene drive research is an ideal test case. Conducting gene drive experiments behind closed doors risks affecting the shared environment and the lives of others without their knowledge or consent. It denies other scientists and interested citizens the opportunity to voice suggestions or concerns that could improve safety and accelerate progress. And it greatly reduces our ability to build support for beneficial applications. In short, there are compelling moral and practical reasons for ensuring that gene drives and other ecological technologies are developed in the open light of day.
Opening science from the earliest stages will enhance safety and reliability by encouraging collective scrutiny of safeguards and research plans. It will accelerate scientific progress by enabling coordination among researchers. And it can improve public confidence and the likelihood of balanced assessment by actively inviting and addressing concerns early in development. For the field of gene drive research, open and responsive science is a moral and practical necessity.
That's why we're sharing all of our research proposals that involve gene drive here. Special thanks to all the other members of Sculpting Evolution for their courage - they're the ones placing their careers on the line in order to do what is right.
We hope that this step will help encourage journals, funders, holders of intellectual property, and policymakers to change scientific incentives in favor of open gene drive research.