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Innovation

What might help open source biology most?

Proprietary attitudes can slow biology even more than computing. Many discoveries are just the piece of a puzzle. If there is no sharing each owner of a piece puzzle must solve the whole puzzle himself. Thus the creation of a biology "commons" has begun gaining traction.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

A recession.

The open source movement was launched in 1998, and the Free Open Source Software (FOSS) movement came much earlier, but it was the millennial recession I call the "dot-bomb" that put it into overdrive.

That recession (it was more a depression within the industry) saw tons of code lost, and tons of people left unemployed. In the collapse of capitalist dreams came the idea of rebuilding with shared code, so that the next recession might not be so destructive.

It's a natural reaction to a boom-and-bust cycle. Let's rebuild and do it right.

Biology has been in perpetual boom for 20 years. Biotech assets, particularly their "intellectual property" of patents and copyrights, keep rising in value.

So while the open source ideal of sharing such assets may be more powerful in biology than in computing, the single open source start-up, Sage Bionetworks, has just now gotten off the ground. (The picture is of Sage co-founder Stephen Friend.)

It's no accident that Sage is based in Seattle, because the idea of sharing resources in biology has an interesting godfather. You may have heard of him. Bill Gates.

Since moving from Microsoft to his Foundation, Gates has become big on sharing. Patents have a much longer history in biology than in software, but Gates made sharing discoveries a condition of his Foundation's $287 million in grants for AIDS research in 2006.

Proprietary attitudes can slow biology even more than computing. Many discoveries are just the piece of a puzzle. If there is no sharing each owner of a piece puzzle must solve the whole puzzle himself. Thus the creation of a biology "commons" has begun gaining traction.

But individual discoveries are still seen as diamonds, not puzzle pieces. Until a recession causes this shift in understanding, open source biology will remain what open source software was before the dot-bomb, a sideline.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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