The Rocky Road Towards Open Science

Open Science is a movement which aims to make scientific research transparent and accessible to all levels of society (Woelfle, Olliaro & Todd, 2011). Open Science has different goals, such as making science more verifiable and results reproducible, thus more reliable. There is also a political and moral argument for Open Science: a lot of science is made possible by citizens paying taxes and they should therefore have access to the results (European Commission, 2016). In the past, the Dutch cabinet has been fairly successful when it comes to Open Science and they have also emphasized its importance during the corona crisis (Van Lissa, 2020). 

Unfortunately, the Dutch cabinet seems to so far have missed its chance to follow Open Science principles during the corona crisis. It is unclear, for example, what the Outbreak Management Team (OMT)1 bases its advice on. Because OMT members have been invited with the guarantee that discussions remain confidential, so that they can speak their minds without having to worry what the press could make of their statements, the content of the meetings remains confidential (NOS, 2020). As a result, the members of the OMT cannot tell the press what has been discussed during their meetings, and when asked will always reference back to the measures. The minutes of the meetings as well as the models and data used, are however not available for the public to inspect. Furthermore, the minutes cannot be requested through the Government Information Act or the House of Representatives, and the Ministry’s of Sport, Science and Health don’t have access to the minutes either (Holdert, van Hest & De Vrieze, 2020).

Scientists from different disciplines have been critical about this lack of data transparency during this crisis. They claim that the (scientific) foundations of the OMT-advices are kept secret, cannot be checked by third parties and are not very transparent. Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, professor of methodology at the University of Amsterdam, is surprised about the lacking of scientific foundations of the OMT-advice: ‘It remains unclear whether the advice is based on the opinion of experts or on hard scientific research. So it is very hard to check in what extent we should trust the advice right now’ (Holdert, van Hest & De Vrieze, 2020; my translation). Many other scientists and several former members of the OMT have also questioned the approach of the current OMT (Holdert, van Hest & De Vrieze, 2020). 

Some scientists consider this lack of data transparency to be a big problem. They argue that Open Science is the most effective way to notice and fix mistakes in an early stage of research, and that it speeds up the development of reliable knowledge (Van Lissa, 2020). Scientific models are critical tools for anticipating, predicting and responding to complex biological, social and environmental crises, including pandemics. These tools are essential for guiding regional and national governments in designing health, social and economic politics to contain the spread of disease and lessen the impact (Barton et al., 2020). Different scientific papers over the past years have stated that Open Science is part of an effective reaction to a pandemic (Polonksy et al., 2019). Because Open Science values transparency and reproducibility, scientific work that follows its principles can be checked more easily, an important facet that has been clearly lacking during the corona crisis so far. Openness of Science can also lower the work pressure for government institutions that get loaded with questions (Van Lissa, 2020). Transparency engenders public trust and is the best defence against misunderstanding, misuse and deliberate misinformation about models and their results (Barton et al., 2020). 

According to RIVM, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and Environment – a knowledge and research institute aiming towards an improvement of public health and a safe living environment – the minutes of the meetings of the OMT are not published publicly because of the sensitivity of the meetings. In a reaction to criticism, the RIVM acknowledged that there are no scientific references or footnotes in the OMT-advices, but that this does not imply a lack of scientific foundations. Besides, they state, the OMT’s job isn’t to give a scientific dissertation, but rather to give the best advice possible at the moment (Holdert, van Hest & De Vrieze, 2020).  

The argument has also been made that government institutes lack the manpower necessary for Open Science. Jacco Wallinga, math master of the RIVM, is a supporter of Open Science, but says he simply does not have the capacity to fulfil this ideal. All capacity is being used for modelling, rather than for sharing models in a manner that is accessible to the public or fellow scientists. The biggest priority is to get the models right, seeing them published publicly is for the future (Van Lissa, 2020). The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has adjourned the Government Information Act, a law that arranges the publication of information from the Dutch government – for example for journalists, so they can critically control authorities – until the 1st of June for the same reason. According to the Ministry, collecting and publishing the information would give the RIVM an unreasonable workload. Different parties and journalists say this law cannot be adjourned. Journalists should know what the corona measures are based on. It cannot be that only a handful of experts are ruling the country without sharing information; there has to be democratic control, states Wim Voermans, professor in administrative law at Leiden University (Brandenburg-van de Ven, 2020).

Caspar van Lissa, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University, wrote an open letter to ask the Dutch cabinet and its research institutions whether code and data could be made publicly available. By the 29th of May, 97 scientists had already signed the letter (Van Lissa, personal communication, May 29th, 2020). The Dutch scientific world has embraced the idea of Open Science during the corona crisis and set up big international collaborations, such as Science versus Corona, that tackle the crisis from a multidisciplinary perspective. Many scientists with relevant expertise are lending their time to research regarding corona. NWO, the national Dutch scientific funding institutes, as well as universities have made money available to fund this research. Everyone is willing to give when it is a matter of health. The scientists who signed the letter calling for data transparency are available to help the government and its research institutes to reach this goal. Unfortunately, the RIVM’s press office responded after 9 days with the boilerplate: ‘unfortunately, we’re too busy to respond personally to every letter’ (Van Lissa, personal communication, May 29th, 2020). 

Van Lissa is not the only one who calls for data transparency. In the Science magazine, Barton et al. (2020) pleaded that just modelling is not enough, scientists should also share model codes, so that the results can be replicated and evaluated. They state that, given the necessity of rapid response to the corona crisis, all eyes are needed to review and collectively vet model assumptions, parameterizations and algorithms to ensure the most accurate modelling possible. They made a call to place codes in a trusted digital repository as soon as possible so that it is findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

Encouragingly, the situation in The Netherlands seems to be improving. RIVM started sharing data about the cumulative covid-19 cases per municipality (RIVM, 2020a), which is a step in the right direction, but was not nearly enough. Over the past few days, however, the RIVM has also shared how their models work (RIVM, 2020b) as well as data about how people are behaving and doing during the corona crisis (RIVM, 2020c). Worldwide improvements are also made; the World Health Organization launched a covid-19 pool at the 29th of May. This is an initiative aimed at making vaccines, tests, treatments and other health technologies to fight covid-19 accessible to all (WHO, 2020). The developments of these launches will be covered in a future article at Strategies versus Corona.

With the gradual reopening of public spaces in The Netherlands, I think it is very important to know what the OMT bases its advice on, so that the advice can be reviewed with a scientific eye. I always assumed the OMT has a big model that incorporates the number of current infections, the average number of people infected by each patient, the number of available health care professionals and all other factors affecting the number of infections and the workload of the health care professional. Ideally, it would also include economic and psychological variables. Based on this model, they would make all sorts of computations that would lead them to decide which steps could be taken to safely re-open society. But without Open Science, we simply do not know –  a state of affairs that is fundamentally undemocratic.

1 The Outbreak Management Team (OMT) is the Dutch advisory body that advises the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the Ministerial Crisis Management Commission with fighting epidemics. 


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