Guy Rouleau, the director of McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and Hospital in Canada, is frustrated with how slowly neuroscience research translates into treatments. “We’re doing a really shitty job,” he says. “It’s not because we’re not trying; it has to do with the complexity of the problem.”
So he and his colleagues at the renowned institute decided to try a radical solution. Starting this year, any work done there will conform to the principles of the “open- science” movement—all results and data will be made freely available at the time of publication, for example, and the institute will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. Although some large-scale initiatives like the government-funded Human Genome Project have made all data completely open, MNI will be the first scientific institute to follow that path, Rouleau says.
“It’s an experiment; no one has ever done this before,” he says. The intent is that neuroscience research will become more efficient if duplication is reduced and data are shared more widely and earlier. Opening access to the tissue samples in MNI’s biobank and to its extensive databank of brain scans and other data will have a major impact, Rouleau hopes. “We think that it is a way to accelerate discovery and the application of neuroscience.”
After a year of consultations among the institute’s staff, pretty much everyone—about 70 principal investigators and 600 other scientific faculty and staff—has agreed to take part, Rouleau says. Over the next 6 months, individual units will hash out the details of how each will ensure that its work lives up to guiding principles for openness that the institute has developed. They include freely providing all results, data, software, and algorithms; and requiring collaborators from other institutions to also follow the open principles.
Staff at the institute were generally in favor of the plan, according to Lesley Fellows, a neurologist at MNI, though there were concerns about how to implement some aspects of it—such as how to protect patient confidentiality, and whether there would be sufficient financial support. Yet there is a “moral imperative,” according to Fellows, for research to be shared as openly as possible.
“While the scale of ‘open’ that can be pursued right now may vary across research areas and will certainly depend on the resources that can be brought to bear, the practical challenges seem worth contending with,” she says. Participation is voluntary, and researchers can pursue patents on their own, but MNI will not pay the fees or help with the paperwork.
Advocates of open science have welcomed MNI’s move. Brian Nosek, a psychologist and director of the Center for Open Science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says he is “very impressed” with the institute’s plans. “It’s clear they are looking to move the organization towards the ideals of science,” he says.
Nosek says the decision to eschew patents is especially intriguing. “I haven’t seen others do that before,” he says. But it’s not something that will necessarily work in other scientific fields, like engineering, Nosek predicts. “There is lots of debate in the life sciences now about what should and should not be patented, but that may not translate across disciplines smoothly.”
Rouleau concedes that the patent ban might mean MNI has to forgo some future licensing income. But he says the kind of early-stage science that the institute does is not really worth protecting. “There is a fair amount of patenting by people at the institute, but the outcomes have not been very useful,” he says, adding that the institute would rather provide data that others could use to develop patentable medicines. “It comes down to what is the reason for our existence? It’s to accelerate science, not to make money.”
The insistence that any organization or institute that collaborates with MNI will also have to follow open-science principles for that project could help to spread the approach, says Dan Gezelter, a chemist and open-science advocate at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “It’s a little bit viral. I’ve never seen that before,” he says. Nosek agrees. “There is little that is more powerful in changing behavior than peer pressure,” he says.
MNI is developing metrics to monitor its open-science experiment and determine whether it has the hoped-for impact. Officials will look at participation by the institute’s own staff, how much their open resources are being used by other researchers, and whether new products or therapies are being developed more quickly. “In 5 years,” Rouleau says, “we’ll be able to say ‘these things worked, and these things didn’t.’”