Something exciting, catalytic and quite delightful…
July 5, 2007 4 Comments
…has happened today.
I recently blogged about attending the first ESF summer school in Nanomedicine in Wales and speaking about our efforts in polymer informatics there.
After my talk, I was approached by an undergraduate, Hosea Handoyo, who wanted to know more about our work and who, amongst many other things, is currently a Neuroscience student in the Netherlands. When I asked him why he was interested, he said that he was attending the summer school in the capacity of a “student journalist”. Apparently, Hosea is part of a group of Indonesian students, which attend research conferences and try to find out what is going on in various areas of science at the moment. They then write this up in the form of “popular science” articles, which get published on the web.
Now if I remember our conversation correctly, there are several points to this. Firstly, it is intended to inform the Indonesian public in simple terms about what is going on at the cutting edge of research science at the moment. Secondly though, it also serves a landmark for students in Indonesia as to what research is going on where and which institutions/research groups they might consider joining in the future.
Now this morning, when I looked over my blog, I saw an incoming link from a website netsains.com (as annoying as the WordPress software may sometimes be when wanting to publish code in angle brackets, it is phantastic for all the housekeeping bits it offers). It looked a bit odd, but I could make out the terms “polimer informatika” in the link and so investigated further. And indeed, it turns out that the link led to an article that Hosea had written about our work here in Cambridge. Now his article is all written in Indonesian and I had no idea what it said, though I could make out some words “polimer informatika”, “kanker” (cancer – a lot of work in polymer pharmaceuticals is done in the area of anti-cancer drugs), the Unilever Centre was mentioned as was polymer markup language (PML), some of the databases I had discussed and Peter Corbett’s OSCAR (which always wows people every time it is demonstrated). I have since found out that his article has also appeared on the pages of the Indonesian Chemistry Forum.
Furthermore, there were links to all of the Unilever Centre blogs, my blog, a link to OSCAR 3 on sourceforge and even to the video on with a lecture on polymer informatics which is up on Google Video. I then got in touch with Hosea via email to make sure that I had remembered the details of our conversation correctly and I also asked him about the the purpose of the netsains.com website. Well, he told me that the site is supported by the Indonesian Minister for Research and Technology and is modeled on the Dutch Kennislink site. Kennislink was set up by the Dutch Ministry for Education, contains over 5000 popular science articles across all disciplines and is the most prominent Dutch language popular science site.
Now in his email (quoted with permission), Hosea said:
“All of these websites are aiming to bridge the gap between Indonesian scientists (and students) abroad and the ones in Indonesia. ICT especially internet is very limited in Indonesia (though the gadgets are quite sophisticated) so it is troublesome for people just simply browsing for information. By providing them the hottest issues from Europe, Japan, US, China, and many other countries, we share the information of research and development of scientific world with them. We could provide them the information of technology and in return, Indonesian communities abroad get updates of what happens in Indonesia and the link to translate their research/latest technology to what public in Indonesia needs. Simply like an open source idea but this is more to information sharing and empowering public awareness in scientific field.”
I found this really heartwarming and delightful for a number of reasons:
- A genuine interest in science. It is phantastic to see that undergraduates go out to conferences with an interest in science and a desire to find out what is going on. In the past, I have worked in institutions where even the attendance of PhD students and post-docs was considered to be a “waste of time and money”. Personally, I think that it is never too early to expose someone who is genuinely interested in science to the cutting edge of what is going on in the world.
- The idea of sharing and openness. It is an often quoted mantra, but one that is hardly ever practiced. We tend to lock up science and access to data in closed access journals, books or other resources. Often enough that already breaks our backs at well-resourced and well-funded institutions like Cambridge and makes scientific progress difficult. In other parts of the world, this is an absolutely insurmountable barrier. However, the more people like Hosea and others write about science on websites like kennislink.com or esains.com, the more people blog about their and other people’s science (the chemical blogosphere is exemplary in this) and the more students write their theses in the open, the more we can start to break these barriers down. And the internet, blogs, wikis etc. are the disruptive technology that will make it possible. Furthermore there is a social dimension here: those with access to resources (IT, conferences, literature etc….) enable access for those with fewer resources in the most efficient way through filtering and feedback.
- The ability to set an agenda. Undergraduates turn into research students, post-docs, academics and decision makers. As research students, they have (always assuming the presence of an enlightened supervisor) the ability to determine what they work on (through choice of the research group they join) and maybe therefore also a choice over the culture in which science is done and in which they want to do science. As post-docs and academics they have the opportunity (together with their colleagues) to fundamentally change the way science is done and communicated. And as decision makers, they might just hold the purse strings, which enables them to tell academics how and where to publish (some funding bodies, for example, mandate that research funded through that body is published in open access journals or reposited).
I think that Hosea and people like him are the catalysts for positive change, which we need to move forward.