My happiest workdays are the ones I spend in the lab with my students. These young people are so full of energy, they recharge me. When it’s time for them to report their results, I always ask them, “What’s the story? What is the message you want to convey?” Once they figure that out, they are ready to start writing.
Most people don’t look at the reporting of science as storytelling. But for me, science and stories have always been connected.
My own science story begins in the basement of my childhood home in Ottawa, Ontario. There, to my parents’ chagrin, I built a chemistry lab. At twelve, while attempting to feed a Bunsen burner a combination of gasoline and oxygen, I caused my first explosion. Luckily, there was a blanket nearby to snuff the fire out.
My desire to do science has never diminished. I am still driven by the same curiosity and desire to explore to discover new things that might improve the quality of peoples lives.
That is why it means so much to me to be recognized now by my peers for my discoveries and my position on Open Science. The Canada Gairdner Wightman Award is an extraordinary honour that gives a special meaning to my entire career.
When I was asked by Cell to contribute a story I decided the most important one is my journey to Open Science. It begins back in the mid-1980s, when I was a graduate student in Genetics at Harvard University. A good friend, a post-doc named Anil, also loved stories, especially stories about well-known scientists. One was about Tom Maniatis. We’d all heard of him. He’d written what was then considered the bible of molecular biology, Molecular Cloning: A Laboratory Manual, a three-volume text we simply called “Maniatis.”
According to Anil, Maniatis would freely share any information or reagents with anyone who wanted them. When asked if he was worried about being scooped, Maniatis would shrug and say, “I’m okay if someone scoops me, because it means science is moving forward faster.”
This anecdote — and Maniatis’s attitude towards sharing — have guided me in my career as a scientist. At the time, the Open Science movement did not yet exist. But Maniatis’s philosophy lies at its heart. As I see it, Open Science is the early sharing with no restrictions of information and reagents.
Fast forward to the mid-1990’s. I was an independent scientist who had been running a molecular genetics lab at Montreal’s McGill University for five years. The Canadian government was drastically cutting funding for academic scientific research. They believed that any scientific research worth funding should be able to attract investment from industry and other sources of capital. They wanted science to yield products, treatments or other practical outcomes.
So, like many others in those days, I ventured into the business world, spending part of my time founding and developing a company. It was the only way I could get the funding I needed to continue my research and support my lab at the same level. Though I was a reluctant, not to mention an inexperienced businessman, I enjoyed this part of my journey, I think because I learned so much about the intersection between science and business.
In academia, businesspeople are sometimes stereotyped as being out for themselves, not for the benefit of society. I admit that I shared this view. What I found instead were people who were practical, possessed great integrity, and who were highly motivated to do good. I came to understand that if discoveries are freely shared with industry, they will use them to develop products that will improve our lives and alleviate suffering.
As an academic, I had been encouraged to file as many patents as possible for my discoveries. However, I soon realized that in the business world, patents generated in universities rarely have value. Invariably, they are too far removed from practical applications to be useful. Here’s an example: not one of the academic patents my colleagues and I brought to our company ever led to the development of a product.
Even worse, academic patents tend not only to be useless, but are often perversely used to block the development of competitive products, preventing people from sharing and moving discovery forward. I learned this firsthand when a company discovered an excellent target for the development of a drug to treat an important human disease. Unfortunately, a previous patent with broad applications that included this disease, significantly delayed the development of a drug that had the potential to change the lives of countless people. Nearly twenty years later, the drug is only now in clinical trials.
By 2007, government support for research had improved, and my lab was doing well. At that point in my career, because I had wanted to do more than run a lab, I had taken on more administrative duties and was fortunate to be invited to join STIC, the new Science, Technology and Innovation Council of Canada. It was through my involvement with STIC that I learned a great deal about innovation and its application in the real world.
I’ve always worked with smart, successful people, but this crowd was even smarter and more successful. They included university presidents, seasoned businesspeople, high-powered entrepreneurs and senior government officials. I still chuckle when I remember overhearing one conversation in which several of my fellow committee members were comparing the maximum speed of their private jets.
The word innovation gets tossed around a lot, but on this committee, I learned the many facets of innovation and its sources. Innovation has less to do with patents and scientific eurekas, and more to do with finding new ways of using technology to solve old problems. One such example is the advent of electronic captors which made X-ray film obsolete.
I also realized how the current university system for innovation creates barriers to sharing and collaboration. Material transfer agreements, contracts between institutions and with industry can take months, and sometimes even over a year. These collaborations often fail because of such delays, as well as unreasonable expectations such as significant royalties and milestone payments.
At STIC, I chaired a working group to explore how Canada could increase its share of worldwide clinical trial activity. We identified a number of barriers to success, including long delays in multi-institutional contracts, a result of inefficiency and the desire to maximize revenues. Such barriers reduce opportunities for collaboration, obtaining clinical trials, and moving medicine forward.
During my second term with STIC, I received a phone call from the chairperson asking me to head a working group on Open Innovation. I immediately accepted. A minute later, I was on the Internet, trying to figure out what the term “Open Innovation” meant.
I’m glad I said yes. That’s because my work on this committee fundamentally changed how I look at the way the scientific enterprise functions. People with different expertise approach the same problem from different perspectives; making all data available taps the richness of the community, resulting in new discoveries.
I also learned that much innovation is spurred by those who are directly impacted: the users. The term user innovation has been coined to describe the fact that innovation is usually not the result of the desire to innovate, but frequently stems from an individual’s needs. Part of our work on this committee involved interviewing various companies that had successfully adopted open innovation. In a telephone conference with a European colostomy manufacturer, we learned they had largely abandoned R&D in favour of interacting with users of their products who had made their own modifications to colostomy bags in order to take part in activities such as mountain climbing and scuba diving. These user-inventors freely shared with the manufacturer their innovations for the good of all users. This spirit of sharing is in keeping with the thinking behind Open Science, where there is free exchange of ideas between individuals, institutions, government and industry. Many minds working from many different angles on a single problem often leads to accelerated discovery.
It was also at this time that despite having been an early adopter of the Internet, I came to realize its truly transformative power. Without the Internet, given the massively increasing quantities of information constantly being generated, Open Science would be impossible. In parallel, the massive amount of information requires newly emerging tools, primarily artificial intelligence, to extract the relevant data.
This was also, by the way, when I realized how much the world had changed – and how old and outdated I was getting.
Shortly after being appointed the director of the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital (The Neuro) in 2013, I began working with Aled Edwards, a champion of Open Science and an innovator exploring novel ways to transform early drug discovery, where all data and reagents remain freely shared. From our interactions, I came to realize that accelerated discovery through Open Science would require institutional buy-in and a massive change in culture. So it made sense to explore the adoption of Open Science at The Neuro. This notion was enthusiastically endorsed by many of my colleagues and the institution’s leadership. Together, we defined and continue to define what Open Science means to us - sharing information to break down research barriers around the globe, fostering collaboration and discovery that will generate treatments that are more effective and ultimately cures. At the end of 2016, after 18 months of conversations focused on a bottom-up approach within The Neuro, discussions with the leadership of McGill University and the support of the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum Family Foundation, we officially adopted Open Science (Figure 1). We became the first academic Institution in the world to adopt an Open Science philosophy. We are anxiously awaiting other Institutions to join us in this adventure.
Because it accelerates discovery, Open Science is vital to finding new ways to help our patients. As a practising neurologist, I share my colleagues’ frustration with the lack of new treatments for most of the diseases of the brain.
In order to sufficiently understand the brain and design new treatments, we must take full advantage of all the information and reagents being generated by the many different groups in the world. This goal can only be accomplished by eliminating barriers to collaboration and using the Internet and technology to freely share all biomaterials as well as the data.
It has always been my practice to freely share reagents and data from my lab. But times have changed. The exponentially increasing quantities of data we scientists are now generating poses a new challenge – as well as a new opportunity. The solution will require not only the Internet, but also the construction of sophisticated informatics platforms.
An unexpected and happy discovery associated with The Neuro’s adoption of Open Science is that the younger generation seems already to have endorsed and to be putting into practice the fundamental philosophy of Open Science. This approach seems to come naturally to young scientists, perhaps because they grew up in the Internet age. As a result, The Neuro is attracting many young talented physicians and scientists.
Open Science is also attracting adherents from the worlds of philanthropy, disease-focused foundations, the pharmaceutical industry and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.
All this gives me hope for the future and confidence that Open Science will continue to grow and thrive, and lead to the development of desperately needed new treatments. Our patients deserve no less.
Tom Maniatis had it right all along.