Democratizing the research ecosystem

While a student at Humboldt University in Berlin, Daniel Mietchen dipped his toes into what he says were “diverse academic waters, including maths, biophysics and medicine, music ethnology and Central Asian studies,” and while so many of his classes piqued his interest, he figured he’d practice either science or medicine.

“I eventually chose the former while staying close to the latter,” says Mietchen, a biophysicist who earned a PhD in physics at Saarland University, and since 2017 has been a DSI data scientist focused on integrating research workflows with the World Wide Web through open licensing, open standards, and open collaboration via platforms such as Wikisource and Wikidata.

At some point during his work as a biophysicist (which ranged from fossils to embryonic development to cold hardiness to music perception to biodiversity informatics…the list goes on), Mietchen realized that “the mediation between experiment and theory was impeded by a lack of sharing.” For example, experimentalists would not share their data, even though it could help improve theoretical models; similarly, theoreticians would not share their code, which could help improve experiments. Engineers would prioritize patenting over sharing, and people with access to special instrumentation would tightly guard others’ access to it.

Mietchen understood that encouraging scientists of many levels to share information—and providing reliable sharing platforms—could be a very good thing. Proving the positive effects of this sort of sharing, not just for the scientists themselves, but for other fields of research and practice as well, could help society and the planet in general (after all, everything is, somehow, connected).

 

“What attracted me [to the DSI] was the prospect of developing openness at an institutional scale, combined with the trans-disciplinarity of data science."

Knowledge-sharing isn’t just a professional interest for Mietchen; it’s a personal passion. He spends plenty of his free time working on various wikis and on the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, a global online resource of open map data that aids disaster responders trying to reach those in need.

“Ideas do not necessarily develop best in labs, offices, or meeting rooms,” says Mietchen, who finds that when he’s not physically at work, or not intentionally thinking about work—when he’s exploring mountains and waterways, playing table tennis, listening to music, playing with languages, reading about Native American peoples, or waiting for the bus while watching a squirrel bound across a telephone wire—his thoughts often float back to his vocation.

“Resources are limited, so we have to make best use of them,” he says. “I am interested in how the research ecosystem can be charged towards sharing more and sharing more efficiently. 

“Hiding knowledge that is, or could be of use to large swaths of humanity is rarely a good idea, but emphasizing and facilitating the sharing of such information often is one.”