The open source biology movement. Interview with Dr. Jefferson by Matteo Angioli
Interview Dr. Jefferson 22/09/2010 Q. The first one is, if you could just describe for us, by and large, the open source biology movement. Well, first I don't choose to call it that. Biology is a field of study whereas open source is a mode of innovation. And they're very different. So we describe it as biological open source or biological innovation through open source. If we must use the expression open source - which I must admit I also have my own concerns about - I think biological open source or biological innovation through open source, ('BIOS)' is preferred. The part that makes it important and impactful is a focus on innovation (the production of new outcomes) in fields that are impacted by life sciences. ‘Biological innovation’ would mean economic and social impacts in health, medicine, environmental services, agriculture, food; it's much more important to call it biological innovation than call it biology. Where biology is the study of living systems, open source is not about studying per se,, it's about doing. I would also say BIOS is a trend rather than a movement. I wish it were a movement! But a movement would imply that it had momentum, sustainability and substantial support, and it has not achieved that to our satisfaction. Concerning your second question about success, our goal in biological open source is to create a more inclusive innovation ecology. Many people talk about openness;, it is fashionable; it's like wearing trendy glasses. Everybody talks about it, but openness is not defined by most people. We tend to use a careful definition. To us, it means the process of innovation must be transparent, and inclusive. This means anyone who experiences a challenge, should have a good opportunity to respond with creative interventions: to innovate. So it's all about freedom to innovate. Not just to talk about, not just to learn from, but to truly innovate, to solve problems. Our goal in fostering this movement, if it is to become a movement, is to have democratized problem-solving, not science alone, ‘science-enabled innovation’. Q. Well, in this respect, I saw, if I may just interrupt you for a while, I saw an interview of yours on YouTube, you were speaking to an Indian guy, I suppose, I don't remember his name... [OK, I know it, I remember the interview] OK, and you were talking about this need of democratization of the process, right, and you said that Monsanto for example is not the problem, all these multinational corporations do not represent a problem, as a matter of fact, they might become, but just because it is the system that induces them to become; and then I, you know, I kind of traced, made a comparison with the American health system, with the insurances, it's not that those people are inherently bad, or evil, it's just the system that turns them bad. Is there a.... [exactly right, I agree], is there a sense? Yes, I'd say that's a good summary but, first, it rarely helps to describe a problem or situation as evil or purely virtuous. That tends to alienate many people who need to contribute to improving the situation. For instance, many people I know who work at Monsanto are completely convinced that they are helping the world with their work, that’s its not solely for thoughtless profit; they really believe it and it is what motivates them. And some of them are very skilled scientists and business people. One of your last questions asked 'has the public sector not decided to invest?' No, rather, the opposite. They put lots of money but I woul hestitate to call it ‘investment’ rather expenditure. The public sector seems to have put little thought, strategy or shown a comprehensive understanding of how a social outcome would emerge from this expenditure, and how these social outcomes would have lives of their own, To produce a product or service that makes an impact in society –through the market or otherwise - takes great discipline, and it takes many, many components and skills that are not scientific. If you wish to develop a product, for instance a new crop variety, a new medicine, a new water filtration tool, there might be science and technology involved, but it would be maybe 5%, the rest involves regulatory compliance, manufacturing, quality assurance, marketing and support; it's hugely difficult to create a true innovation. I should define my terms Matteo, , I use the word innovation, as an economist would use it, that is: a new product or service that interfaces with the market; now that doesn't mean it's a success, and it doesn't mean that it is being sold, but it does mean that it has the potential impact and to be tested by society in the market. So our use is different from that of those who talk of new scientific discoveries as’ innovation’, we think a good deal about ‘science-enabled innovation’. Innovation which is made possible by science., The innovation process itself is complicated, is inefficient, is requires discipline, and it is very complex. This means we have many communities participating with different incentives. The reason that companies are good at developing products and services, and the public sector is not, is not because of the capital - at least not directly -, it is because they assert mission discipline on diverse groups; so their product marketing people are in the same house as their engineers, as their manufacturing plants; I mean they're all in the same company, or in the same entity, so discipline and efficiencies can be created by causing those communities to work together for the common goal. Q. So, there is a lack of coordination right now? In the public sector, absolutely! It's managerial discipline guided by vision and leadership. There is a managerial discipline that the private sector imposes to bring all the parties together to produce the product. There's fiscal, or financial discipline, that makes sure that the product meets standards for the cost of production and for correct pricing. There's managerial discipline that brings the parties together, and, creates incentives for each of them; sometimes the incentive is just a job [ laughing ], sometime it's more. You see, a private sector enterprise manages a complex set of activities to do what might be considered a very simple thing: they respond to signals from the market place. The public sectors' job is so much more interesting, in many ways so much more important, and much more challenging: to make it possible for a social response to market failures, and to create an environment in which diverse innovators can provide social value, especially where ill-served by the market forces.. But it requires all the discipline of the private sector and more! It requires a level of context understanding and vision that is extremely hard, but critical. Unfortunately the public sector has fragmented its' capabilities; instead of aggregation, they fragment, and even reward that fragmentation. ,For instance the public sectors' life sciences research community, has little engagement with or reward to really immerse themselves in the hard yakka of biological innovation, rather they conduct just one small piece of it. Many public sector actors – universities, institutes and the like - think of themselves as if they were the private sector, and they posture and use the language of the companies, they talk about innovation and thinking outside the box and delivery to ‘stakeholders’, and they talk about intellectual property and ‘extracting value’, but they don't live in the awkward and challenging world of actually having to see economic and social impact, with their mission as their driver . Doing something is hard, taking about it is easy. The public sector does not yet have the discipline or the structures in place to do things that urgently need to be done, nor to understand nor create an ecology that can broaden our social impact to reduce poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, or other clear imperatives. But it could. And my assertion is that with enough transparency it will. But, you see, what we have is a situation, when I started the biological open source movement about a decade ago and then launched it officially about six years ago, the intention was to create synergy for efficiency with people working together to solve serious problems. The issue of course is that science doesn't solve problems, per se. Science can ask and answer questions about our natural world; but problems are solved by people and institutions, not by science as a phenomenon or a professoion. So, it is terribly misguided to say that we need science to solve a problem, you may need science to frame and inform, but science does not solve it. So, the question is what's the role of science in all of this? The role of science can be many things, but the very questions you ask and the way that you share the answers, can determine who uses it to solve problems. That's very important. So, the point where we can intervene with the public sector is through creation of so much transparency that people and institutions can understand and model the impact of their behavior; they can then be rewarded for good behavior and discouraged from bad. But critically, they themselves – and their political and pay masters – can visualize and choose. They can have a framework which provides them clear ‘cartography’ of the innovation space... Let's take an example: let's imagine you're a scientist at a University, and you develop a new technology that could be used for diagnosis of malaria or tuberculosis (or indeed other diseases). Now the university will have its office of technology transfer, they might file a patent disclosure on that invention, but how will they know how to share, license or indeed whether to patent that? They most likely don't know the world of diagnostics, they are not a diagnostics company after all, and have few tools to help them understand how this piece of the puzzle it would fit into the ecology of diagnosis . So, they're told by the university: monetize this. The university says: it is important you make money to pay for the university so we can make inventions that we can then monetize and make money to pay for the University. And so they look around: how can we sell it, how can we make money? That sounds very much like a closed loop. Not very interesting, or logical and worse, it ignores the bigger picture of the University’ mission and social imperatives. How about if instead we had a system that was so transparent, so easy as an informatics resource, that that university looks at cartography, the maps, the landscape of what is happening in tuberculosis diagnostics; what is happening in the current state in diagnosis of other diseases; Who are the players; What are their development trajectories? What is being neglected? What of societies needs – compelling needs not best dealt with by private sector – can we help with? Then they can look at their piece of the puzzle with this map and see where it could fit. Then they can say: what is the best way to handle this, for the public good, for the mission of the university? Right now they can't do it. In their defense, they - like Monsanto - are not evil, but they are part of the problem because they could be delivering the work- product of the public in a way that maximizes public good. But they don't know how. So we stopped our work on biological open source to focus 100% on a new paradigm of massive transparency, not just in information, but in decision-making in the field of intellectual property and innovation intelligence. Because our aspiration is to truly make biological innovation an efficient process that includes many new people and their own priorities. We have to decrease the risk, and we have to increase the quality of the decisions and that will be made through this transparency. Our efforts are increasingly focused on making the world of global intellectual property and business information a free, open source, open access tool. Q. And evidence-based? Evidence-based, absolutely. To guide decisions for both private and public secgtors based on evidence, not based on rhetoric or only ideology. You know, we should be inspired by ideology, that's fine, but we should be guided by the evidence. Q. By facts, yes. Well yes, but they're more than just facts. As you know, a fact has to exist in a context to have real meaning. In the early stages of biological open source, we were like navigators heading out in a boat on a sea, without a map, and we realized that, if it was only about us - meaning just our little team - we could maybe survive in that uncharted sea and have our tiny voyage and come home. But if our goal is to have thousands of new navigators, thousands of new sailors, moving around the world of innovation with reduced risks and exciting new outcomes, it wasn’t’ enough. We had to work together to create shared maps. So our little voyage of inventing one tool and sharing it with specific new licenses – as we did in our early BiOS work - would not be enough. We had to go back and work to re-invent map-making and work towards promoting a new navigation paradigm for public and private innovation. And just like the Portuguese and Spanish, who were the giants of commerce in the14-1500's because they dominated cartography, and they understood the maps. But they also kept the maps as state secrets. When the maps became public, then competition became more open and fair, and more players came to the table, better ships were developed, more commerce happened and ultimately- terms of trade became more fair. We must do the same in innovation based not on moving ‘things’ – as was the driver for thousands of years of commerce – but through using ideas and intelligence to create new opportunities. What we at Cambia – and our colleagues in this movement around the world - really want to do is to achieve a disruptive change in society, So to do this, we've stopped some of our biological work to focus on the creating transparent canvas of innovation cartography. Lately , we've been able to convince the Gates Foundation to support some of this work Q. The Gates Foundation? Believe it or not. [laughing] Q. Good for you :-)) Well, probably because one part doesn't know what the other part is doing. [ laughing out loud ]. Actually its because they are committed to seeing real products and services for the poor happen with their funds, and they recognize that while most of their grantees are public agencies, these institutions don’t understand the complexities and don’t have the culture of delivery, other than perhaps scientific papers and presentations. So creating a shared and open framework for public to work with those who are skilled at delivery and to reduce the frictions and misunderstandings, is a logical tool. And its hugely cost effective, as it crosscuts all their work and indeed that of all investors – public and private – who need to see impact in their missions. Q. All right. So, I think I'm gonna ask you a final question, because it's already 8.32. What do you expect then from the newly formed government, and what would you ask the minister for this... In Italy? Q. Well, also in Italy yes, but maybe let's start with Australia. Well, in either Australia or in Italy, if policy were driving decisions, instead of politics, I would say one thing only: complete, contextual transparency of the innovation system. With this transparency, people can see a route to solutions that have meaning for them, and can see when behavior of themselves or others is not constructive and can change it. Q. So, pretending tomorrow you're going to meet the minister and the prime minister, you would ask to set up a mechanism to make transparency more..., for innovation, more effective. Dramatically more effective. Q. To set up some sort of, I don't know, body or, you know, government body... No! Oh god no, no more bodies! Actually many of the moves for openness of government information are heading in the right direction. Many countries are now doing this better and better, but information is not transparency, information is the driver of knowledge. We must make a global platform where innovation knowledge can be universally available and improved by participants. That means a global resource that allows you t
see explicit in what the public sector and private sector are really doing in any field, including in intellectual property, in science, in technology and business and regulations. So the facility I'm asking this minister to support –( and this Minister may not yet exist) would be an integrated and fully open and shared facility that makes all government information meaningfully aggregated with a particular focus on the information necessary to innovate; it must not be parochial. It must be global and language and jurisdiction agnostic. Q. Any chance for you to go and see someone in Canberra? Not if I wish to see an outcome soon., I used to live in Canberra for 18 years and I know many of the senior bureaucrats and politicians. Sadly, just meeting and making a point is not how things work in the real world of politics. Our approach destabilizes incumbents. The people who are already there, the players that are already there, are often there because they keep new entrants out. It would take a brave politician to really wish to see a change in the status quo. Our job is to give them and the people they should be representing, sufficient clarity and evidence of how this disruptive change will bring net social and economic value. We want to democratize society with many new players, with many new ideas. Our vision, Matteo, is what we call 3D: Democratize, Decentralize, Diversify; you've seen that. And it's meaningful only if we strive to remove the constraints to that vision. So, finally biological open source isn't just about patent licensing, it's not even mostly about patents, it's really about fostering a new type of rigor and discipline in a public sector that has abandoned its responsibilities. So I would say, time and again, the biggest problem in innovation is the lack of commitment and coordination in the public sector. It has abandoned or perhaps never fully understood, the imperative for an open innovation ecology. And that's wrong. We have not done our job. We have our work cut out for us. Private sector can be responsible, efficient and as effective if we make it obligatory and possible for them to be. So, it is not really the private sectors' fault that we have a dysfunctional innovation system, nor that we haven’t solved the problems of public health, agriculture, food security or the environment. They will behave predictably. They will be profit maximizing within their constraints, of course, but if we build an ecology that is transparent, that is fair and open for competition, if we allow and encourage new entrants, and if we minimize the costs and risks of innovation, we will see a dramatic change in the demographics of problem solving. That’s what we want. Q. Ok. Well, doctor Jefferson, thanks a lot. I think you have to go now. All right, my pleasure. I do, I have to run and pick up my daughter. Q. Ok :-) I think Italian is not a totally unknown language to you, right? No, posso parlare un po' d'italiano. Ho abitato vicino da Napoli per sei mese. Q. Ah, allora conosce un po' dei problemi, anche dell'Italia :-))) :-) sì. Senti, devo andare adesso, ma we can speak by email perhaps. Q. Yes sure, I will send you also the transcript and of course the article. Grazie dottore! Ok, a la prossima volta! Q. Perfetto, grazie! Arrivederci.