Sharing Research Plans
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 we wait years before finding out that the potential collaborator with a key piece of the puzzle was 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. All that effort, wasted. Even if we get there first, we've still wasted years on a project that someone else would have completed soon after anyways. Paranoid secrecy may be fun in a game of Paranoia, but not so much when it's your life's work.
The harsh truth is that no one would rationally design the current scientific enterprise. It evolved in the time before modern communications, 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-specialists, who can't reliably anticipate the consequences on their own.
There's strong evidence that risk analyses that involve local citizens produce more comprehensive results than teams of expert risk analysts, even as judged by those same experts. Science is much worse than that. In an age of increasing dependence on successively more powerful technologies, the fact that we practice science much as we did a century ago – that is, mostly blind to the ongoing efforts of others and any attempt to assess the consequences – is mind-bogglingly shortsighted.
On the other hand, 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.
We hope that this step will help encourage journals, funders, holders of intellectual property, and policymakers to change the scientific incentives in the field of gene drive to favor open research.
Sculpting Evolution Grants