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Full report on the COMMUNIA Conference 2009

Second Communia Conference, Turin University, 28 June 2009, photo by Communia Staff, released in the Public Domain Many thanks to attendees from all the over the world - more than 110 people - that made the Second Communia Conference a dynamic and successful event! Here below please find a detailed report covering keynotes, panels, discussions and much more. Original presentation slides and papers are available on the Conference main page.

The Conference plenary session opening was held in the Aula Magna of the Turin University, one of the most prestigious in Europe and founded in 1404 by Amedeo VIII, the first Duke of Savoia. Paul David (Stanford University and l'Ecole Polytechnique & Telecom Paris Tech) stressed the need for a much larger collaborative effort worldwide in order to achieve "a true advancement for the XXI century science as a whole". Unfortunately today's Intellectual Property (IP) practices often hinder the "common use and sharing of scientific knowledge", thus preventing such overall advancement. Instead, we as a society should protect the public domain pools and actually stimulate public investments aimed at enlarging the corpus of knowledge available. [06july09]

On the same note, Denis Noble (University of Oxford) outlined the collaborative strategies that made possible the launch of the Human Physiome Project, a meeting point for the Biology, Mathematics and Computation fields that is posing a variety of challenges to its researches. "The transmission of information is never one-way, not even in human genes", explained Prof. Noble. "We were able to break down the human organism in its 25,000 genes and some 100,000 proteins, but only through active sharing practices we could make sense of all this. And today we don't know where our research is leading."

Hans Hoffman (CERN Honorary Member) underlined a similar crucial role of the international collaboration in another major and complex field, the particle physics: "a discipline where we know something for its 4% while for the remaining 96% we know zero." Hence the need for an actual collaborative model that can be applied to other large projects and great challenges - based on equal access to data, common clear objectives, and "accessible to all" communication at all levels. Knowledge - concluded Hoffman - is the capacity to activate the potential to start something, while its value increases with its use.

The Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) is another great example of a "full and open exchange of data" aimed at benefiting scientific knowledge and thus the society at large. As explained by Paul Uhlir (US National Academies), this project promoted an entire set of implementation principles such as "all data sharing with minimal delay and minimal cost" and other guidelines in eight areas aimed at promoting "public goods for public interest use". That's particularly the case of this global environment research where, despite having collected a tremendous amount of data, we are still unable to make a better use of such data. We "are getting smarter but not wiser", mostly preferring to "stuck our heads in the sand" about environmental problems, as is often the case with Usa, China in the first places. Also worth noting is that, while in Usa most data are generated by Federal agencies and thus immediately put in the public domain, the EU tends to commercialize (releasing it under some financial constraints) its information, thus creating some obstacle to its full access and re-use.

Fiona Murray (MIT) talked about a growing trend in mixing "formal and informal institutions to shape collaboration and participation in scientific progress", at least according to a variety of projects mostly based in North America. Therefore the rules of such institutions (including their funding and design) have "profound implications for who participates and who is left behind".

The closing keynotes of the Conference first day focused on two actual implementations of on-going collaborative procedures, particularly in research policy and funding areas. Norbert Kroo (Hungary Academy of Science) outlined the strategy employed in the European Research Council's IDEAS, while Nicole Perrin (Scientific Advisor to the Wellcome Trust, UK) explained the operative workings of the Wellcome Trust. Such practices of "new ways of doing and funding science" where underlined by both speakers and in the final open discussion with the audience - an urgent step toward a true globalization of scientific progress and communities.

The Conference day two and three were hosted at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Moncalieri, about twenty minutes south of Turin - courtesy of two comfortable shuttle buses. A paper by Philippe Aghion (Harvard University) and many co-authors, including Fiona Murray, presented a collective paper on the US National Institutes of Health project on mouse genetics - and its openness effect on innovation within the academic world, where usually "researchers prefer freedom and will take a wage reduction for their freedom to investigate alternative paths".

Bernt Hugenholtz (University of Amsterdam) insisted on the ambiguous relationship between scientific research and IP laws - particularly the "new" electronic rights pursued by most journal publishers and the database rights formally introduced by the EU in 1996, along with contract exclusivity trends. "Clearly such practices impede scientific communication freedoms and undermine the value of public domain", explained Hugenholtz. How can we get out of this dead-end approach? Here are a few possible strategies: the EU and the various National bodies should abolish any copyright in government information and reconsider the privatization of public data functions, while universities should discourage/prohibit 'all rights' transfers to publishers, promoting instead open access practices particularly among University Presses.

Drawing some lessons from the "complex, intricate structure of public research institutions" in France, Patrick Llerena (University of Strasbourg) outlined the missing links between universities and industries and the impact of current policies in EU universities. Some suggestions to unfold such intricacy include avoiding co-ownership among public research institutions, increasing the incentives to public researchers, creating a pool for IP policies of universities to get ‘critical mass’ and increase their ‘returns’.

The entire afternoon and part of the following morning were devoted to a series of small thematic sessions, ranging from the economics of academic research to case studies to design requirements in a variety of settings and projects based in EU and US universities.

The third and final day of the Conference addressed possible reforms of research resource commons and outlined future policy recommendations to better integrate public domain and science. Jerome Reichman (Duke Law School) pointed to the Microbial research, that is "outgrowing its small-science institutional structures to develop a global commons based on an open, digitally distributed network." This approach could actually become a viable model in other fields, aiming at redesigning the general infrastructure and foster fruitful partnerships between public and private sectors - including such suggestions as linking public funding for scientific projects to the immediate release of related outcomes in the public domain.

Describing the practical experience developed so far by Science Commons, its Executive Director John Wilbanks gave an overview of hypotheses and models able to actualize the "transformational potential" for making sense and re-using the huge amount of data generates by worldwide research. This is path not without obstacles, though, such as an "entire culture of scholarly communication the resist that transformation." A topic further investigated by Bronwyn Hall (Maastrict University) by addressing alternative mechanisms for data provision and diffusion - including the measure-citation tool being created by the same Science Commons - and limiting possible pitfalls as the 'free-ride' enjoyed by those few researchers that use public material without making public their own production.

After a quick overview of the "Techno-Socio Vision of the Cyberinfrastructure" according to the US National Science Foundation, the Conference final session focused on policies and recommendations. The four panellists tried to address the issue of how to integrate top-down and bottom-up policy initiatives. Moving away from certain recent trends toward State and trade secrets (particularly in China), the first line of action should naturally be directed to re-open and expand the public domain in every possible way: with better rules, more public funding, no liability licenses (top-down approach) and by creating incentives and support to help fostering the commons (bottom-up approach). Marco Ricolfi (University of Turin) stressed the need of increased interoperability and spaces to different communities within the scientific realm, along with the importance of "making friends" with private entities by integrating Creative Commons and/or public domain licenses. Benjamin Coriat (University of Paris XIII) asked for the EC help in funding the infrastructure needed for "building and making available to the public data-communities". It was also noted that generally the EU university have no IP department and rectors have little or non experience with administrative task, thus limiting the chance to integrate digital, open tools in their research dissemination and policies.

Several members of the audience also commented and discussed these possible recommendations, thus reinforcing the centrality of policy outcome within the entire Communia Project and, even more importantly, for the future of knowledge-sharing and the global science.

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