“Trudeau at the Neuro!” the picture exclaims in large white text. In ten seconds, I try to get my bearings: presented in front of me seems to be a photo of the Canadian Prime Minister, suited up in one of the Montreal Neurological (Neuro) Institute’s auditoriums. Although I can’t be too sure – ten seconds goes by as quickly as it sounds. Luckily, in comes another photo, and mere clicks later I have more time to take it all in: there indeed is Justin Trudeau, clad in a grey suit, accompanied by Dr. Guy Rouleau, the Neuro’s Director, and two unfamiliar faces. Several cyberspace messages with the photo’s sender, a former colleague, and I have confirmed my initial suspicions: the Montreal Neurological Institute is moving forward with their Open Science Initiative.
On December 16, 2016, Larry and Judy Tanenbaum – the unfamiliar faces identified – announced their donation of $20 million to the Montreal Neurological Institute. In doing so, they established the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute, which aims to propel the discovery and application of therapies for neurological disorders. The Neuro’s transition to an “Open Science” model – one that exchanges individualized discovery for knowledge hubs, layering innovation among researchers, datasets and partners – has been no secret. In the spring of 2016, the Neuro spearheaded a five-year experiment to adopt the Open Science model, hypothesizing that Open Science will attract new private partnerships and that it will perpetuate commerce, clustering companies whose work complements that of the Neuro in the Montreal region.
To convert to an Open Science model, the Montreal Neurological Institute has committed to five main principles. First, the Neuro’s research staff will make all materials relevant to a published study freely available the same day that the article hits the press. This includes the study’s complete datasets, materials list, applicable software, algorithms and generated models. Second, any outside partner who collaborated in the data or discovery – be it in academia, industry, or a related company – must also agree to the Open Science model’s first principle. Third, the Neuro’s BioBank, a repository for human tissue samples and digital brain scan data, will be openly available to interested parties, albeit for a small fee. Fourth, the Institute will not pursue any patents on its research discoveries. However, the last of the five principles of Open Science allows each of the Neuro’s researchers their own autonomy, meaning that intellectual property patents could be pursued by the researcher without any involvement from the Institute. By taking such a bold stance on Open Science, the Montreal Neurological Institute (and its affiliate McGill University) has become the first academic institute worldwide to abide by this new standard.
Larry Tanenbaum, reputed businessman and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, put his name behind the Neuro’s Open Science initiative because he believes this model will spur cutting-edge research and discovery. “What we are celebrating here today is the transformation of research, the removal of barriers, the breaking of silos and, most of all, the courage of researchers to put patients and progress ahead of all other considerations,” he said at the December 16 news conference. The Neuro has secured over $100 million to date in funding for Open Science through various federal, provincial and philanthropic sources.
The Montreal Neurological Institute is among a small family of initiatives that have adopted the notion of free data and result sharing; the Human Genome Project and the Allen Institute are two other examples of large-scale projects that have kept free access to data at the forefront. Unique to the Montreal Neurological Institute’s model of Open Science, however, is their commitment to abstain from patent protection. In a May 2016 interview with Nature Magazine, Dr. Rouleau acknowledged that the Institute may lose out on potential discoveries that have commercial promise, as a pharmaceutical company would have every right to use the Institute’s data to produce a patent-protected drug. However, Rouleau equally believes that the risk is low, saying, “We’re working at such early stages, anything we discover will need to be taken and worked on for years — our share of any profits would likely be small.” In an article for McGill University Alumni News, he added that pursuing patents hinders the pace of scientific discovery: “We’ve been doing a lousy job of advancing neuroscience…. We just aren’t progressing quickly enough. Part of the reason is that the brain is so incredibly complex. We need to find ways to do things differently.”
The Montreal Neurological Institute’s adoption of the Open Science model is a noble undertaking, one that will be closely monitored by academic institutions worldwide. Aled Edwards, University of Toronto Professor and founder of the Structural Genomics Consortium, has been a vocal proponent of the Neuro’s efforts towards Open Science. In a piece for the Globe and Mail, he emphasized the impact of this model on the research community, writing, “Rather than reproduce the system that has failed to advance science elsewhere, Canadians ought to be leaders in not only sharing data and samples and avoiding patents, but in setting the global standards for sharing. By sharing, our leading public institutions will reduce needless duplication of effort, decrease senseless negotiations over who owns what … [and] generate more collaborations.”
Although it is premature to say whether the Open Science experiment at the Neuro will work, by undertaking such an initiative, the Montreal Neurological Institute forces us to acknowledge that the current standard of scientific research is in fact closed. Prestige in science today is established by publishing in high-impact journals, most of which are pay -walled and reviewed anonymously, raw data kept closely guarded by its generators. This current methodology in science perpetuates a fierce competition to secure research funding, with citations and intellectual property protection weighed heavily in the process. For an Open Science model to be successful, transparency, accessibility and collaboration in scientific research must become the new normal, closed science, the anomaly. And the only way that this shift in scientific culture can be realized is if the Neuro is not the only academic institution brave enough to take the plunge.
- CBC News. Montreal Neurological Institute receives $20M for open science research centre. CBC News (2016).
- Edwards A. To spark medical innovation, Canada should embrace Open Science. The Globe and Mail (2017).
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- Hayward S. McGill University announces a transformative $20 million donation to the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. McGill Newsroom (2016).
- McCabe D. A bold experiment in open science. McGill Alumni (2016).
- McGill Reporter Staff. McGill wins $84-million grant for neuroscience. McGill Reporter (2016).
- Owens B. Data sharing: access all areas. Nature 533:S71–S72 (2016).
- Picard A. In Montreal, a wee opening in the closed world of science research. The Globe and Mail (2016).