Sunday, August 05, 2007

SciFoo07 Ends

The past few days have been quite stimulating.

The SciFoo conference started right after I got off the plane in San Francisco on Friday evening around 18:00 and lasted till midnight. With the jetlag from the east coast I was exhausted but the energy of the meeting definitely kept my interest.

Friday night was the only part of the conference deliberately set up with the traditional format of speakers. The most impressive talk was on the big picture of planetary energy input and consumption. It was refreshing because the speakers seemed genuinely concerned with reporting on the actual state of things, instead of building up evidence to support their pet eco-solution. Lets just say things look grim for maintaining current energy consumption with existing renewable and non-renewable energy sources. (However, since we haven't been good at predicting scientific discoveries in the past my guess is this model will become irrelevant in 100 years). If the slides are released I'll link to them in an update.

On Friday night people suggested sessions for Saturday and Sunday and I tried to attend as many of them related to Open Science and scientific publication. The idea of this "un-conference" was to create brainstorming and discussion sessions. A few sessions really were like that but most ended up with significant presentation portions, some taking up the whole slot.

There was just enough time during the hour long sessions for people to state their opinions but not enough to innovate and make progress. That will have to wait for discussions and collaborations following the meeting. Anyone following the discussions in the blogosphere on Open Science and scientific publication will be familiar with the debates: peer review, academic credit, fear of getting scooped, etc.

The discussion was much like the blogosphere, except that the more introverted individuals probably did not contribute as much as they would have liked. I'll find out what they were thinking when they get to update their blogs and post comments.

Sometimes it felt like the Googleplex was the tower of Babel. It is apparent that there are enormous differences in the way science is done in various fields. Terms like raw data, peer review, experiment, reproducibility, citation, publication, workflow, etc. can have very different meanings.

This was probably the source of some heated discussions at times. As an organic chemist, if I find a report of a synthesis on the web with full characterization of the product, I can inspect the raw data from the spectra fairly quickly and determine if it makes any sense. I can then use that information to make that product or similar compounds with confidence. In that case, the presence or absence of peer review does nothing to affect my ability to use the information. For a cosmologist, analyzing raw data is so time consuming that the analogous situation does not apply. The only way to remove these misunderstandings is to continue to have conversations. This may be one of the most important functions of science blogs.

I met several scientists who expressed their intent to move at least part of their research to a more open format, beyond the framework of the traditional journal article. I also discussed collaboration on our drug-discovery efforts with a few people. As these materialize, I will be sure to blog about them.

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