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Allen Institute executives say their operation can serve as a model for future research.
Allen Institute executives say their operation can serve as a model for future research.

Big Science, Team Science, Open Science: In this week’s issue of Neuron, two top executives at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science lay out a manifesto for the future of large research projects.

Christof Koch, the institute’s president and chief scientific officer, joins forces with President and CEO Allan Jones to explain why they think the approach developed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen provides a model for understanding the brain, the genome and other scientifically complex phenomena.

“One gifted professor working with her graduate student and post-doctoral fellow in isolation will not tame the vast beast that is the genome and the brain,” they write.

Instead, they point to the team approach that’s best exemplified by the legions of physicists who contributed to the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, and the detection of crashing black holes by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Big Neuroscience isn’t yet in the same league as Big Physics: The LHC’s experimental groups add up to more than 10,000 scientists and engineers, while a mere 100 researchers contribute to the Allen Brain Observatory. Nevertheless, Koch and Jones say they’re learning important lessons from the institute’s experiments in Team Science.

“We have learned … that to build a well-functioning team with a strong esprit de corps, it is critical to jointly and cooperatively align on specific common goals, build trust by open and transparent decision-making, a maximal sharing of both responsibilities and credit, and nourish morale by a dense web of formal and informal means of communication,” they write.

 

“Open Science” is arguably the most distinctive frontier for the Allen Institute, which has received $500 million from Paul Allen since its founding in 2003.

From the very beginning, all of the institute’s products have been made freely available to scientists and the public. Today, that store of research amounts to more than 3 quadrillion bytes of data.

Koch and Jones argue that open science is particularly suited to 21st-century research.

“For millennials, communicating via texts and images is part of their social online experience growing up,” they write. “Thus, it comes natural to young scientists to freely and openly share data, computer code, and manuscripts.”

They also say open access to data can address one of the scientific community’s biggest current bugaboos: the difficulties encountered in replicating the results of biomedical experiments, which Koch and Jones characterize as a crisis.

The executives make two recommendations for accelerating the pace of discovery and addressing the replication crisis:

  • Detailed code for the complete analysis of data and procedures should accompany every publication. “The most convenient form is a Jupyter Notebook, a Python-based web application for the creation and sharing of documents that contains live code, equations, figures, and explanatory text.”
  • Common data should be used for placing research data and relevant metadata online in a curated repository. “Increasingly, funding agencies are receptive to such initiatives and the attendant costs. With rare exceptions for singular findings, the era of illustrating discoveries via nothing but a flat PDF file, with ‘representative results’ that are often the most expected or cleanest responses, ought to be coming to a close.”

Koch and Jones finish off their essay with a shout-out to other researchers involved in Big Neuroscience efforts led by the United States, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, Canada and South Korea (all of which are spotlighted in Neuron):

“With bright eyes, we look toward a future in which we, together with the worldwide community of researchers from individual laboratories at universities and independent research institutes, will decipher the most highly organized piece of excitable matter in the known universe: the human brain.”

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