The gatekeepers of the future

The world around us has transformed dramatically in the last 20 years, and the world of science is being shaped by technology. Crowdsourcing and citizen science are made easy by the internet and mobile apps. Article metrics and peer review experiments allow us to challenge processes that have decided science for hundreds of years. Career structures are able to change and diversify thanks to industry’s and technology’s demands. But does this truly affect research and its impacts, and are the gatekeepers for science really changing?

A few weeks ago I attended the EuroScience Open Forum meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark. EuroScience Open Forum, or ESOF, is a pan-European meeting that happens every two years in a different city – and I should declare that I’m on the media and marketing committee and have been since the 2006 Munich meeting.

Copenhagen viewed from the water
Copenhagen viewed from the water

I was asked to chair a session titled Setting the research agenda: who will be the future gatekeepers? The panel was: Sophie Carsten Nielsen the Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science; Mads Krosgaard Thomsen, Chief Scientific Officer for Novo Nordisk; Cameron Neylon, PLoS’s Advocacy Director; Stephane Berghmans, Elsevier’s Vice President for Academic and Research Relations and Carlos Acevedo-Rocha who is on the executive board of the World Association of Young Scientists (WAYS).

We started with short but thoughtful insights from each of the speakers before a question and answer session with the audience. The panel were well behaved, stuck to time and also to my request that we didn’t just bemoan the problems but tried to focus, if not on solutions at least on opportunities. There were lots of positives to focus on and the idea of there being ‘gatekeepers’ at all was challenged.

Taking the previous day’s plenary from Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science which focused on open science and open data, the Danish Minister spoke of her government’s commitment to open access, and the idea of advancing science. The Danish National Strategy on Open Access requires all articles that are publicly funded to be open access by 2022.

Mads Krosgaard Thomsen believes all clinical data should be made available and touched on metrics and opportunities to probe quality. Cameron Neylon also spoke about openness, musing on the word ‘gatekeepers’ as a medieval term with connotations of keeping people out. Instead we should think of portals, portals to access; for research, for data and for interaction between researchers and other stakeholders. Technology can help with these interactions, indeed, Stephan Bergmans talked about platforms that are connecting data and the ability to measure the societal and economic impacts of research.

The future gatekeepers panel at ESOF2014
The future gatekeepers panel at ESOF2014

Carlos Acevedo-Rocha, though, was clear that the future gatekeepers are the next generation, and the challenge is to ensure that younger scientists are setting the research agenda. There are new and multiple career opportunities in the 21 century, indeed we have more PhDs than jobs and some young scientists are using technology to crowdsource funding – via kickstarter or indiegogo. This puts decisions about what research gets done into new, untraditional hands – you could argue it takes science further away from the ivory tower.

The recently launched Longitude Prize involves a public, who are becoming more used to being involved in the scientific agenda by voting for what they think is today’s biggest challenge. There are issues that need to be addressed with crowdsourcing – how, for example, can we be sure that research hasn’t already been done, or that it’s a sound approach. A project to raise money for an HIV vaccine raised eyebrows earlier this year when high-profile names asked to be removed and the approach was shown to have been tried and failed in the past.

Other projects such as Galaxy Zoo or OPAL involve citizen scientists, rather than professionals, and are generating volumes of data.  Perhaps it is more appropriate to talk about curators of science rather than gatekeepers.

Publishing has changed thanks to technology. Open access is accepted more broadly and new players are trying different and innovative models for peer reviewing and publishing research. Crowdsourcing and citizen science too represent an exciting step in which technology is changing the shape of science. The work that WAYS is doing to communicate to young scientists the projects that are out there is helping to shape a new generation, not of gatekeepers per say, but of parties who feed into decisions and scientific process.

Research has shown that the more diverse groups of people make better decisions. Even if universities and funders remain key gatekeepers, it seems that we have a new generation of curators, who are becoming more diverse, though there’s certainly a way left to go.



View the latest posts on the Research in progress blog homepage