The quote above is plastered just outside the entrance to the Montreal Neurological Institute. I’m not sure if Dr. Penfield intended this, but I see a double meaning in those words.
The first is the obvious, the study of the brain is the study of who and what we are, how the billions of cells between our ears enable our existence and give rise to all the things that we do.
But man is more than the three pound lump of goo in our skulls. To understand the degenerative process eating away at my own brain I have not only had to learn what we think we known about that lump of goo, but also how we produce new knowledge about it. Unfortunately what I found was that the way society’s institutions facilitate the latter often impedes our ability to properly study ourselves. This discord imposes barriers to progress and creates a gulf between what science is and what science should be.
Anyone trying to do brain research today is locked in an almost daily struggle to balance the needs of their career with the needs of the society they supposedly work for. The problems in brain science require broad collaboration but the incentives that drive a scientists career are based almost solely on individual performance. We can hope and pray that some lone genius will have a eureka moment and piece the problems together themselves, but the reality is that we have likely not uncovered enough pieces of the puzzle that is the brain for anyone to make sense of what goes wrong with it.
Trace this struggle down to its core and you’ll find its roots in an ideology about what drives people to do what they do. Many funders of science, from philanthropic institutions to government agencies to even charitable organizations, seem to believe the best strategy for continued progress is to appeal to our innate need for personal wealth and reward, that at heart we are selfish creatures that work best when we are working for ourselves.
But maybe, just maybe, there is another way. Enter Open Science and the Montreal Neurological Institute, aka the neuro.
Montreal has built a reputation for itself as a place willing to take the risky steps needed to advance brain research. From breakthrough techniques using electrical stimulation to treat epilepsy, to the invention of the EEG to monitor signals from the brain, to the infamous CIA funded experiments using LSD to treat schizophrenia. Now a new movement has emerged here that hopes to spark a revolution in how we study the brain.
In 2016, led by its eminent director Dr. Guy Rouleau, and backed by a generous donation from philanthropist Larry Tanenbaum, the neuro launched the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute (TOSI), becoming the first academic institution in the world to formally adopt open science policies.
The most radical part of this policy concerns intellectual property protection. Working with Prof. Richard Gold, (founding Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy), the initiative took the bold step of removing the practice of IP protection.
Here is where ideological lines really cross as some say that without the IP protection that enables individuals to profit from their discoveries, scientists would not be as motivated to do science. For what it is worth, I have come to know hundreds of neuroscientists and biologists, they are people like anyone else and do suffer from many of the same human frailties as the rest. But the vast majority are driven to do what they do more by the thrill of discovery and a desire to help others (as well as a need for recognition) than by wealth and reward.
Regardless, what is clear is that the model we have used to produce knowledge about brain diseases, particularly neurodegenerative diseases, is painfully slow and has produced almost nothing but failure. As things are, when a scientific discovery is made it usually takes years just to make it into academic journals and become public knowledge. Open science, if properly implemented, should enable much more rapid dissemination of new knowledge, thereby accelerating progress.
Open science is not going to solve all our problems, but I believe that any medical research center that claims to be working in the best interest of patients and society is morally obligated to adopt open science policies. Not doing so perpetuates the status quo of a scientific culture that prioritizes publication and grants above the needs of society. It impedes collaboration and ultimately slows progress, prolonging the suffering of millions.
More on this topic to come in future posts. Here is some additional reading…
I’d also recommend reading the open science policy at the Lashuel lab at the EPFL.