An alternative future

Research Europe, 12.01.17

Dietmar Lampert, from Austria’s Centre for Social Innovation, hopes that digital science will create a better fit between innovation and society, Inga Vesper reports.

At November’s Web Summit in Lisbon, one innovator took to the stage to demonstrate his face-recognition glasses. “I’m scanning and filing every face in this room,” he told the audience of 15,000. Half of the crowd cheered with excitement. The other half quietly covered up their faces.

It is scenarios such as this that pose crucial questions about whether people are ready to handle the full capabilities of the latest technological inventions. And it is these questions that Dietmar Lampert from the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna is trying to answer. He wants to understand the effects digital technologies have on society, and propose ways to better prepare people for the latest inventions.

Lampert, who researches digital policy and alternative metrics, sees the issues that have arisen as a result of global digitisation as a two-headed beast.

On the one hand, neither citizens nor policymakers grasp the full extent of the phenomenon because of its intangible nature. “You would never plaster your personal information all over your car for all to see, but in the virtual world people stop being careful because it is harder to connect emotionally,” he says. Law-makers controlling the reach and impact of digital technologies continue to lag behind the technology itself as they remain unaware of how far digital and data-gathering technologies have sneaked into everyday lives, Lampert says.

The digitisation of science offers new opportunities to tackle the problems raised, through the emergence of both open and citizen science. And Lampert says he believes that these hold great scope for a big transition in the future, as combining openness of experiments and results with the involvement of citizens could prepare society better for technological change.

Scientists finally have the means to share data and results widely and immediately, rather than relying on conventional publishing—a necessity when paper documents were the only means of storing and distributing information. Open science means opening the research process up from the start to other partners, including the public and companies, to create innovation and do research that addresses society’s concerns. For researchers, the challenge is to “decide how much, and where, openness makes sense”, he says.

Sharing data will improve the quality of science due to better reproducibility and wider peer review, he claims. “Openness makes sense in science because transparency will give you instant validation and impact.”

Lampert also believes that this will help, ultimately, to shift the research process away from isolated teams working in the confines of a single laboratory, towards close involvement of citizens, policymakers and other scientists. “As researchers, we are still precious about our knowledge. We’ve never been able to break the paradigm,” he says. ”Innovation comes from different ways of looking at something, from not accepting the paradigm.

“Europe has a lot of diversity. Its people can bring something extra to science, and that creates new chances for innovation.”

Traditionally, innovators have been lauded for growing their ideas into large companies, but there has been little requirement for them to think about the social and security implications of inventions. Now, when hundreds of people are involved, scientists need to take charge of ensuring that scientific quality is upheld: for example by providing training in gathering quality data in comparable, shareable formats and thinking about the personal rights of those generating the data, Lampert says.

A truly open and citizen-led movement won’t work for all fields of science, he cautions, especially those involving sensitive data or competitive product development. He says that researchers as well as citizens will have to learn what works and does not work in the open-science process and think of alternative measurements for results.

“For example, scientists would need to change their language, so they don’t solely communicate in jargon,” he says. “It is also a question of who gets the credit. Will the citizens who provided their computing power or pattern-recognition skills be named in the paper? Will scientists be able to move away from counting citations and towards including social impact on their CV?”

He also pleads with policymakers to catch up, as bodies such as the European Commission continue to propose legislation not fit for purpose. Referring to a revision of copyright legislation that aims to protect European inventions, Lampert says that it will clamp down on data sharing and public hosting—totally failing to acknowledge the open-information movement.

“If you own something physical, you’d have a real loss of value if someone took it away,” Lampert says. “But in the world of ideas that’s not always the case. Sharing an idea is what gives it value in the first place.”