Six Funders Working to Set Science Free

Sharing information is easier than ever, but much scientific research remains maddeningly walled-off in publications charging thousands of dollars for access. Some prominent funders are part of a growing movement to make science more open.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently made a strong statement in favor of the accessibility of research with the announcement that it was implementing the world's strongest mandate for grantees to provide open access to their results. Gates is the latest funder to take a stand against scientific journals holding research hostage behind outrageous paywalls, and instead pushing for widespread dissemination and reuse of scientific discovery. 

The move is an important milestone in the push for open science, a movement that has been escalating over the past decade or so. In a nutshell, before the Internet, research results were exchanged almost entirely by publishers of commercial, print journals to which researchers and libraries had to subscribe (this is a good little primer). Sounds like a fine system, but one problem is that most published research is funded by public grants. So the idea that the public can’t even read a study that the federal government paid for is messed up. Not only that, but even as the ease of exchanging information has increased, the cost of access has gone through the roof. It’s prohibitively expensive for average people, but also other scientists, especially in less wealthy countries. 

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Aside from the fairness issue, there’s scientific importance to openness, as all research builds on other research. And with improving tools for collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data, the importance of freely exchanging ideas and results is hugely important. So open access to studies is an important part of the movement, but it’s also about shaking up the habits of research institutions to be more collaborative and transparent. 

Hence the big push for access, transparency, and better exchange of information. Governments are starting to get on board, with Europe leading the way, but the United States is also making a pledge to increase access to publicly funded research. Private funders are joining the charge, not only with mandates that grantees make research public, but also by funding and organizing proactive initiatives to improve exchange of ideas among scientists.  

Here are a handful of funders who are doing some bold and interesting things in the realm of open access to scientific research and data: 

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation, the wealthiest in the United States and a big supporter of health care research, announced in November that it would be implementing a strict new open access policy for its grantees, going further than other big leaders in open access such as the National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust in the UK. 

The significance of the decision is that, while it allows a year before research must be made public, it plans to sunset that option in 2017. The other wild card is the requirement for research it funds to allow unrestricted reuse, even for commercial purposes. This component means that Gates grantees would not be able to publish their research in some of the country’s most revered journals, including Science and Nature, if their policies don’t change. Of course, Gates is surely banking on some new policies, but this is a pretty serious gauntlet thrown in the direction of the gatekeepers of leading scientific research. 

But Bill Gates’ support of open science didn’t start with its new mandate. He also led $35 million in startup investments in 2013 to ResearchGate, which is like a social network for scientists to exchange their work. Its goal is to help researchers find collaborators and similar work, fostering an “open source” approach to science.

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Gates has also been a big supporter of an Australian initiative called the Lens, which is a crowdsourced effort to chart out the world’s patents, giving independent researchers a way to more easily navigate previous innovations and countering the secretive world of intellectual property. 

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation

The Arnolds are quite possibly the most aggressive funder when it comes to transparency in research. The drive behind the philanthropy power couple’s funding for open science comes mostly from a sense that the research world needs more accountability and discipline. They cite as reasons such things as published research without methodological rigor, and an inability to judge reliability due to closed doors in the research and publication process. 

Related: Laura and John Arnold Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Arnold has an entire program called Research Integrity, which sits right alongside the rest of its funding for government accountability, criminal justice, and education reform. It also operates with the belief that foundations should seek transformative change, so it’s looking to create institutional improvements in the openness, transparency, and quality of research.  

The funder is supporting an initiative called METRICS, a meta-research project at Stanford that will scrutinize published papers and the methods behind them. But its most prominent grantee in this realm is the Center for Open Science, a project of University of Virginia researcher Brian Nosek, that has been calling out bad statistics, studies that can’t be reproduced, and a lack of transparency in research. Part of the center’s work is creating and promoting the Open Science Framework, a platform and network that encourages as much of the scientific process as possible to be conducted in a public forum, open to critique and collaboration, from start to finish.

Open Society Foundations

 The philanthropic institution started by George Soros has been instrumental as an organizer of efforts toward open access of scientific research. Its most notable move in this arena was the convening in 2001 of a meeting in Budapest, gathering the leading proponents of open access for scientific literature. Soros has long been a crusader for transparency and accessibility in government, and this is sort of an offshoot of that interest. This led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which developed a set of recommended guidelines for open access. OSF also funds a handful of organizations that campaign for open access policies, including the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Electronic Information for Libraries and the Right to Research Coalition. 

The Wellcome Trust 

We tend to focus on philanthropy happening in the States, but it would be impossible to discuss open science without bringing up Wellcome, the second-largest private funder in the world, next to Gates, with an endowment of $16.6 billion. The UK-based Wellcome Trust has been a pioneer in open access to published research, requiring since 2006 that its grantees make their results public within six months of original publication. The policy was only working about half the time, however, so in 2012 the Trust announced it would be cracking down on those who brushed off the mandate by withholding final grant payments. 

Its most recent move on open access was the 2014 launch of the Charity Open Access Fund, a partnership of prominent charities that provides grants to cover charges associated with making research freely available. 

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Another of the world’s biggest scientific research funders, HHMI has a similar attitude toward open access as Wellcome and OSF. Two years after the OSF’s Budapest conference, HHMI gathered its own one-day meeting to draft principles related to open access to scientific publications, bolstering the growing movement. The Institute first issued its own policy mandating open publication, similar to that of Wellcome, in 2007. 

Related: Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grants for Science Research

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

RWJF is one of the country’s most prominent health care funders, supporting better access and methods in medical care. The funder approaches openness in medical research and care as a way to accelerate medical discovery, mostly through a program called Reinventing Discovery. In particular, the funder sees the tremendous opportunity in medical data, and wants to see more collaboration and creative use of what we know about our health. 

Related: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Grants for Disease

Some recent examples of such grants encouraging collaboration include a $500,000 recent grant to Cures Within Reach, to create an open access platform for “Rediscovery Research.” The program will establish an open-participation platform to accelerate the development of repurposed uses for existing technologies and treatments. 

RWJF also granted $1.9 million in 2013 to PatientsLikeMe, for another open research platform. This initiative will gather data voluntarily submitted by patients to create a database of information centered on their experiences, which can then be studied freely and without restriction by medical researchers.

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The funder also joined the Knight Foundation in funding the Harvard Personal Genome Project to create a platform called the Open Humans Research Portal. The project will increase research access to the genomic and demographic data that has been submitted by thousands of volunteers for open access.

This is just a handful of funders involved in the effort to crack open research, and many others are pursuing less formal or high-profile tactics. For example, Gordon and Betty Moore are funding a massive grant program for data-driven discovery, and many of the grantees (as is common in big data projects) have a strong connection to open science. Google also requires its grantees to make results publicly accessible, as does a growing number of funders. There’s also a very cool collaboration in the works to build a common language for the world’s neuroscientists to share their data.

Related: Science Funders Hope to Link Up Large Scale Brain Research

With Gates taking the plunge that it did, this sort of thing is only going to become more common among major research funders.