Right now scientific questions are chosen for study in a largely autocratic way. Typically grants for research on particular questions come from federal funding agencies, and scientists competitively apply with the money going to the chosen researcher via a peer review process.
I suspect, as the tools of online science become increasingly available, the real questions people face in their day to day lives will be more readily answered. If you think about all the things you do and decisions you make in a day, many of them don’t have a strong empirical basis. How you wash the dishes or do laundry, what foods are healthy, what environment to maintain in your house, what common illness remedies work best, who knows, but these types of questions, the ones that occur to you as you go about your daily business, aren’t prioritized in the investigatory model we have now for science. I predict that scientific investigation as a whole, not just that that is government funded, will move substantially toward providing answers to questions of local importance.
This past January Obama signed the America COMPETES Re-authorization Act. It contains two interesting sections that advance the notions of open data and the federal role in supporting online access to scientific archives: 103 and 104, which read in part:
• § 103: “The Director [of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the Whitehouse] shall establish a working group under the National Science and Technology Council with the responsibility to coordinate Federal science agency research and policies related to the dissemination and long-term stewardship of the results of unclassiﬁed research, including digital data and peer-reviewed scholarly publications, supported wholly, or in part, by funding from the Federal science agencies.” (emphasis added)
This is a cause for celebration insofar as Congress has recognized that published articles are an incomplete communication of computational scientific knowledge, and the data (and code) must be included as well.
• § 104: Federal Scientiﬁc Collections: The Office of Science and Technology Policy “shall develop policies for the management and use of Federal scientiﬁc collections to improve the quality, organization, access, including online access, and long-term preservation of such collections for the beneﬁt of the scientiﬁc enterprise.” (emphasis added)
I was very happy to see the importance of online access recognized, and hopefully this will include the data and code that underlies published computational results.
One step further in each of these directions: mention code explicitly and create a federally funded cloud not only for data but linked to code and computational results to enable reproducibility.
Stanley Young is Director of Bioinformatics at the National Institute for Statistical Sciences, and gave a talk in 2009 on problems in modern scientific research. For example: 1 in 20 NIH-funded studies actually replicates; closed data and opacity; model selection for significance; multiple comparisons.. Here is the link to his talk: Everything Is Dangerous: A Controversy. There are a number of good examples in the talk and Young anticipates and is more intellectually coherent than the New Yorker article The Truth Wears Off if you were interested in that.
Idea: Generalize clinicaltrials.gov, where scientists register their hypotheses prior to carrying out their experiment. Why not do this for all hypothesis tests? Have a site where the hypotheses are logged and time stamped before researchers gather the data or carry out the actual hypothesis testing for the project. I’ve heard this idea mentioned occasionally and both Young and Lehrer mentions it as well.