Toward Data-Intensive Open Science: EU Open Access Envoy Jean-Claude Burgelman Reflects on the Open Science Movement

This article was originally published  on November 25, 2019 in Data & Policy, the peer-reviewed, open access venue dedicated to the potential of data science to address important policy challenges, by Andrew J. Zahuranec and Stefaan Verhulst

Over his accomplished career, Jean-Claude Burgelman has served as a pioneer in identifying societal and technological trends that have the potential to transform society-at-large. In his current role as the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, he has advanced open science as the new paradigm for the scientific process and enterprise in a variety of ways.

On Wednesday, November 20, The GovLab hosted Burgelman in its latest Ideas Lunch at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress. Over the course of an hour, Burgelman spoke about the increase of the open science movement, the policies within the European Union that enabled its growth, and the future of science.

The conversation began with an overview of what “open science” meant. The movement, in the envoy’s words, describes an effort to make research more global, open, and collaborative, creative and closer to society. It was an effort to change science from a closed process to an open one.

More than being about philosophical ideas of openness, Burgelman discussed the very real value that open science brings. The concept improves transparency in the science system, ensuring taxpayers and policymakers understand the costs and value of the research they fund. It also allows ideas to circulate faster and improves a project’s return on investment by ensuring it is easily accessible and reusable.

The envoy underscored the point. “Open science is not just a systems change. It is good for science. It is good for the scientist. It is good for the funder.”

Burgelman then went on to discuss the actions of the European Union in advancing open science. Since 2008, the organization has opened its assets to the public and encouraged others to do the same. A cornerstone of this work is the FAIR data principles. Holding that data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable, the European Union has committed to making its publicly funded research as open as possible by 2020 to maximize its value.

“The overwhelming majority of [traditional] science is hidden behind paywalls or put in a format that you can’t use. We do all these big investments in science, then we use it once and it’s gone,” said Burgelman about the current system of scientific publishing. “With open science, the likelihood that you have spin-off research goes up by making it available to others.”

The FAIR principles aligned with other European Union priorities to promote open data, develop a science cloud, and foster and create incentives for citizen science.

In closing remarks and in the question-and-answer session, Burgelman expressed his optimism for the future. Though academics need to protect against irreplicable research, mischief, and bad actors, open science removes barriers toward critical thinking that can enable better research. Increasingly, academics are less limited by the data they can find than the questions they ask.

“The environment for doing research has never been better than it is today,” he said, “Still, our whole system is not geared toward producing the best questions.”

Stefaan Verhulst, Chief Research and Development Officer at The GovLab, closed the conversation by echoing these remarks. He noted The GovLab’s ongoing work on this very issue through The 100 Questions Initiative. As Burgelman emphasized, unlocking the potential of data and data science requires asking well-defined questions.

The envoy’s remarks show improving the flow of research, data, and insights are essential to improving governance and decision-making. By making research available, the scientific community can increase the dissemination of and confidence in scientific findings informing decisions. By making the underlying data more available, researchers can focus on asking the right questions.

Note: Data & Policy, in addition to being an open access journal, promotes open science through a Transparency and Openness Promotion policy that asks authors to make data and other evidence underlying the findings in their article openly available in an appropriate repository, and to cite this in a data availability statement in the article. See also the Data for Policy community page on Zenodo (the EC-funded open repository for research materials), which contains papers from the Data for Policy conference.