I had the opportunity to go the White House yesterday to attend the Open Science Champions of Change award ceremony. I’m not sure why I was invited, perhaps because I nominated Aaron Swartz for it, and happen to be local. Unfortunately, Aaron didn’t win the award. I guess it would’ve been sad to award it to him posthumously. But it’s a sad story. Whatever the reason, I was sure honored to be there.

It was just amazing to see some of my heroes like Paul Ginsparg (arXiv), David Lipman (PubMed, Genbank) and Jeremiah Ostriker (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) in the same room, and on a panel where they could share ideas about the work they’ve done–and what remains to be done. The event was live streamed and is now available on the White House Youtube channel. The full list of the other amazing recipients and their bios is available here.


So many things were said over the two hours, it’s hard for me to summarize here. But I thought I would jot down the main theme that struck me, absent a lot of the details about the projects that were discussed. Hopefully I can look back later and say, oh wow, I went to that.

During his intro, Jerimiah Ostriker talked about how the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was set up from the beginning to require public data sharing on the Internet. He said that it wasn’t easy, but that they made it work. David Lipman talked humbly about how PubMed and GenBank make all publicly funded research and data available at an astonishing rate: millions of users, and many terabytes of data a day. There was much discussion about how to incentivize scientists to share their research. Lipman pointed out that while there was a history of sharing pre-prints in the physics community (which helped Ginsparg realize arXiv) the biomedical field lacks this culture to some degree. Ginsparg acknowledged this, while pointing out that compelling, new applications that change what it means to do research can mitigate this to some degree.

I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point Ostriker was asked what needed to be done to incentivize more public sharing of research and he responded quickly, simply and with a smile:

People like to follow rules.

I think Ostriker was not only referring to the way he helped set up the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, but also to the proposed legislation Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) or Aaron’s Other Law, which is still pending, and in need of support. People kind of laughed a bit when Jack Andraka (whose story is freakin’ amazing) said he was planning to start a petition to bring down the paywalls in front of publicly funded research. He described how his own research was obstructed by these paywalls. He’s wicked smart and just a kid, and has a humorous way to present the issues–so a bit of laughter was ok I guess. But Ostriker who is 76 and Andraka who is 16 were right on key, given where they were sitting:

The rules need to change. It’s time…there’s still time right?