Building Blogs of Science

Digital skills and scholarship for researchers 5 – getting funded

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Health and Medicine, Science, Science and Society by kubke on September 20, 2016

Almost a year had past since that first conversation between Kaitlin Thaney, Nick Jones, Cameron McLean and myself where we asked:

‘what would Software Carpentry look like if it was delivered as a university course?’

A number of conversations and workshops were had that kept indicating that the thirst and need for this was there, that there wasn’t a clear solution in place, and that the solution was not going to be easy to produce. We knew what we wanted the house to look like, but we needed to find an architect. And of course, money to pay them.

Enter Nat Torkington

Card sorting at Foo Camp CC-BY-NC-SA Titine on Flickr

Nat organises an unconference called KiwiFoo. He invites a bunch of people to a retreat north of Auckland and lets the awesome happen. In 2015 I was invited, and, by pure luck Kaitlin Thaney was invited too as she was around that time in Australia for a software carpentry instructor training around ResBaz Melbourne. Also invited were Nick Jones, director of NeSi which had recently become the New Zealand institutional partner of Software Carpentry, and John Hosking, Dean of the Faculty of Science, University of Auckland.

The words that Kaitlin Thaney said at one of our meetings came back as if from a loudspeaker: You need to engage with the University Leadership. You need to think strategically.

And KiwiFoo gave us that opportunity.

Kaitlin, Nick and I brought John Hosking into the conversation, and his response was positive. We tried to exploit the convergence as much as we could over that weekend – there are not that many chances to get to sit with this group of people in a relaxed environment and without interruptions or the need to run to another meeting. We had each other’s full attention. And exploit we did.

Back in Auckland, Nick suggested that I talk about the project to the Centre of eResearch Advisory Board. The Centre of eResearch at the University of Auckland is helping researchers with exactly these kinds of issues. Next thing I know, Cameron McLean and I are trying to get everything we learned through the workshops into something more concrete. I talked to those details, and when the Board asked: ‘how can we help you’ I did not know what to say.


Luckily, Nick Jones, as usual came to the rescue. We had a chat, and decided to work with me on higher level thinking. I was still missing the big picture that we could offer the leadership. Watching Nick’s thinking process was a humbling joy. I think I learned more from that session than what I did in all the Leadership programmes I was part of. I realised also how far I was from getting to where we needed to get. What is the long term vision? What are the gaps? Why do we need to fill them? How are you going to manage change?

At this meeting we saw we needed to engage with CLeaR, the organisation that provides Professional Development for staff and the group has a lot to offer in instructional design. We had already agreed that this training project should not be focused solely on students, but, rather, should have a broader scope. We produced an initial outline of what we were proposing, and invited Adam Blake from CLeaR to join the conversation and contribute to this document.

I was invited again to the eResearch Advisory Board, and this time I was better prepared. The timing was also perfect. The application window for the Vice Chancellor’s Strategic Development fund was open and I now knew what I needed: support to put an application through. We built a team of key project advisors, each who could contribute something quite specific: Adam Blake, to advise on course structure and to provide support to do the research on the course, Mark Gahegan, Director of the Centre for eResearch, Poul Nielsen, from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, Nick Jones, from NeSI, and myself as the Project Lead, and the intention of hiring Cameron McLean as project manager. We worked on the application and backed, by the eResearch Advisory Board, it went in.

Our proposal was to develop a training suite, based on Software and Data Carpentry that could be used to be delivered to students and staff in different formats, to support a ResBaz in Auckland in February 2016, and to run a pilot course for students about to enter the research lab on second semester in 2016. We knew our bottleneck was time – people’s time to do the work. We asked for $150,000 in salaries.

In September we got the email: your application has been approved….


The Vice Chancellor’s fund was giving us initially a limited amount of money with the rest of the money contingent on the approval of a needs analysis by the eResearch Advisory Board.

We accepted the offer and hired Cameron McLean as Project Manager (by now he was a trained Software Carpentry Instructor and had submitted his PhD thesis and was waiting for his viva). First order of business, a needs analysis.

Time to go to the library.

Open Access Week 2014

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Health and Medicine, Science, Science and Society by kubke on October 25, 2013

What do brain machine interfaces and Open Science have in common?

They are two examples of concepts that I never thought I would get to see materialised in my lifetime. I was wrong.


Kiwi Open Access Logo by the University of Auckland, Libraries and Learning Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

I had heard of the idea of Open Access as Public Library of Science was about to launch (or was in its early infancy) . It was about that time that I moved to New Zealand and was not able to go to conferences as frequently as I did in the USA, and couldn’t afford having an internet connection at home. Email communication (especially when limited to work hours) does not promote the same kind of chitter-chatter you might have as you wait in cue for your coffee – and so my work moved along, somewhat oblivious to what was going to become a big focus for me later on: Open Science.

About 6 years ofter moving to New Zealand things changed. Over a coffee with Nat Torkington, I became aware of some examples of people working in science embracing a  more open attitude. This conversation had a big impact on me.  Someone whom I never met before described me a whole different way of doing science. This resonated (strongly) because what he described were the ideals I had at the start of my journey; ideals that were slowly eroded by the demands of the system around me.  By 2009 I had found a strong group of people internationally that were working to make this happen, and who inspired me to try to do something locally.  And the rest is history.

What resonated with me about “Open Science” is the notion that knowledge is not ours to keep – that it belongs in the public domain where it can be a driver for change. I went to a free of fees University and we fought hard to keep it that way. Knowledge was a right and sharing knowledge was our duty. I moved along my career in parallel with shrinking funding pots and a trend towards academic commodification.  The publish or perish mentality, the fears of being back-stabbed if one shares to early or too often, the idea of the research article placed in the “well-branded” journal, and the “paper” as a measure of one’s worth as a scientist all conspire to detract us from exploring open collaborative spaces.  The world I walked into around 2009 was seeking to do away with all this nonsense. I have tried to listen and learn as much as I can, sometimes I even dared to put in my 2 cents or ask questions.

How to make it happen?

cc-by Mariano Kamp on Flickr

The biggest hurdle I have found is that I don’t do my work in isolation. As much as I might want to embrace Open Science, when the work is collaborative I am not the one that makes the final call. In a country as small as New Zealand it is difficult to find the critical mass at the intersection of my research interests (and knowledge) and the desire to do work in the open space. If you want to collaborate with the best, you may not be able to be picky on the shared ethos. This is particularly true for those struggling with building a career and getting a permanent position, the advice of those at the hiring table will always sound louder.

The reward system seems at times to be stuck in a place where incentives are (at all levels) stacked against Open Science; “rewards” are distributed at the “researcher” level. Open Research is about a solution to a problem, not to someone’s career advancement (although that should come as a side-effect).  It is not surprising then how little value is placed in whether one’s science can be replicated or re-used. Once the paper is out and the bean drops in the jar, our work is done. I doubt that even staffing committees or those evaluating us will even care about pulling those research outputs and reading them to assess their value – if they did we would not need to have things like Impact Factors, h-index and the rest.  And here is the irony – we struggle to brand our papers to satisfy a rewards system that will never look beyond its title. At the same time those who care about the content and want to reuse it are limited by whichever restrictions we chose to put at the time of publishing.

So what do we do?

I think we need to be sensitive to the struggle of those that might want to embrace open science, but are trying to negotiate the assessment requirements of their careers. Perhaps getting more people who embrace these principles at staffing and research University Committees might at least provide the opportunity to ask the right questions about “value” and at the right time. If we can get more open minded stances at the hiring level, this will go far in changing people’s attitudes at the bench.

I, for one, find myself in a relatively good position. My continuation was approved a few weeks ago, so I won’t need to face the staffing committee except for promotion.  A change in title might be nice – but it is not a deal-breaker, like tenure. I have tried to open my workflow in the past, and learned enough from the experience, and will keep trying until I get it right. I am slowly seeing the shift in my colleagues’ attitudes – less rolling of eyes, a bit more curiosity.  For now, let’s call that progress.

I came to meet in person many of those who inspired me through the online discussions since 2009, and they have always provided useful advice, but more importantly support.  Turning my workflow to “Open” has been as hard as I anticipated.  I have failed more than I have succeeded but always learned something from the experience. And one question that keeps me going is:

What did the public give you the money for?

ASAP Awards Finalists announced

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Health and Medicine, Science, Science and Society by kubke on October 2, 2013

(Cross-posted from Mind the Brain)

Earlier this year, nominations opened for the Accelerating Science Awards Program (ASAP). Backed by major sponsors like Google, PLOS and the Wellcome Trust, and a number of other organisations, this award seeks to “build awareness and encourage the use of scientific research — published through Open Access — in transformative ways.” From their website:ASAP Finalist Announcement 300x250

The Accelerating Science Award Program (ASAP) recognizes individuals who have applied scientific research – published through Open Access – to innovate in any field and benefit society.

The list of finalists is impressive, as is the work they have been doing taking advantage of Open Access research results. I am sure the judges did not have an easy job. How does one choose the winners?

In the end, this has been the promise of Open Access: that once the information is put out there it will be used beyond its original purpose, in innovative ways. From the use of cell phone apps to help diagnose HIV in low income communities, to using mobile phones as microscopes in education, to helping cure malaria, the finalists are a group of people that the Open Access movement should feel proud of. They represent everything we believed that could be achieved when the barriers to access to scientific information were lowered to just access to the internet.

The finalists have exploited Open Access in a variety of ways, and I was pleased to see a few familiar names in the finalists list. I spoke to three of the finalists, and you can read what Mat Todd, Daniel Mietchen and Mark Costello had to say elsewhere.

One of the finalist is Mat Todd from University of Sydney, whose work I have stalked for a while now. Mat has been working on an open source approach to drug discovery for malaria. His approach goes against everything we are always told: that unless one patents one’s discovery there are no chances that the findings will be commercialised to market a pharmaceutical product. For those naysayers out there, take a second look here.

A different approach to fighting disease was led by Nikita Pant Pai, Caroline Vadnais, Roni Deli-Houssein and Sushmita Shivkumar tackling HIV. They developed a smartphone app to help circumvent the need to go to a clinic to get an HIV test avoiding the possible discrimination that may come with it. But with the ability to test for HIV with home testing, then what was needed was a way to provide people with the information and support that would normally be provided face to face. Smartphones are increasingly becoming a tool that healthcare is exploring and exploiting. The hope is that HIV infection rates could be reduced by diminishing the number of infected people that are unaware of their condition.

What happens when different researchers from different parts of the world use different names for the same species? This is an issue that Mark Costello came across – and decided to do something about it. What he did was become part of the WoRMS project – a database that collects the knowledge of individual species. The site receives about 90,000 visitors per month. The data in the WoRMS database is curated and available under CC-BY. You can read more about Mark Costello here.

We’ve all heard about ecotourism. For it to work, it needs to go hand in hand with conservation. But how do you calculate the value (in terms of revenue) that you can put on a species based on ecotourism? This is what Ralf Buckley, Guy Castley, Clare Morrison, Alexa Mossaz, Fernanda de Vasconcellos Pegas, Clay Alan Simpkins and Rochelle Steven decided to calculate. Using data that was freely available they were able to calculate to what extent the populations of threatened species were dependent on money that came from ecotourism. This provides local organisations the information they need to meet their conservation targets within a viable revenue model.

Many research papers are rich in multimedia – but many times these multimedia files are published in the “supplementary” section of the article (yes – that part that we don’t tend to pay much attention to!). These multimedia files, when published under open access, offer the opportunity to exploit them in broader contexts, such as to illustrate Wikipedia pages. That is what Daniel Mietchen, Raphael Wimmer and Nils Dagsson Moskopp set out to do. They created a bot called Open Access Media Importer (OAMI) that harvests the multimedia files from articles in PubMed Central. The bot also uploaded these files to Wikimedia Commons, where they now illustrate more than 135 Wikipedia pages. You can read more about it here.

Saber Iftekhar Khan, Eva Schmid and Oliver Hoeller were nominated for developing a low weight microscope that uses the camera of a smartphone. The microscope is relatively small, and many of its parts are printed on a 3D printer. For teaching purposes it has two advantages. Firstly, it is mobile, which means that you can go hiking with your class and discover the world that lives beyond your eyesight. Secondly, because the image of the specimen is seen through the camera function on your phone or ipod, several students can look at an image at the same time, which, as anyone who teaches knows, is a major plus. To do this with standard microscopes would cost a lot of money in specialised cameras and monitors. Being able to do this at a relative low cost can provide students with a way of engaging with science that may be completely different from what they were offered before.

Three top awards will be announced at the beginning of Open Access Week on October 21st. Good luck to all!

Internet birdfest

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Science, Science and Society by kubke on June 1, 2013

A few days ago I got an email from a colleague of mine pointing me to a video about birds of paradise. I am happy I went and looked at it because it is quite amazing. There is no question why this group of birds stand apart from others – they are not beautiful to watch, but their behaviour, too, is quite amazing. Watch:

There are other birds that I find absolutely amazing. The Lyrebird for example, incorporates into its song sounds that it hears as it goes about life. There are two types of song learning birds (songbirds). Some will learn to imitate a song from an adult tutor as they are growing up, and pretty much sing that song as adults. Others can continue to incorporate elements to their song as adults. The lyrebird falls into this last group. But what I find amazing about the lyrebird is not that it incorporates new song elements, but that some of those sounds are not “natural” sounds. Watch:


Another amazing bird is the New Caledonian crow. A while back Gavin Hunt (now at the University of Auckland) came to find out that these birds were able to manufacture tools in the wild. They modify leaves and twigs from local plants to make different types of tools which they then use to get food. This finding spurred a large body of work on bird intelligence. Watch:

And if you are interested of where these wonderful animals all came from, there is a fantastic blog by Ed Yong over at national Geographic. Read:

The changing science of just-about-birds and not-quite-birds
(HT @BjornBrembs)

I am sure there is a screenplay somewhere in there, inspired by Tron and involving cats chasing birds in cyberspace. But I shall leave that for someone more creative than me.

Software Freedom Day[s] are here!

Posted in Environment and Ecology, Health and Medicine, Science, Science and Society by kubke on September 17, 2010

A little while ago I started an experiment: can I operate my academic and personal lives by using only open source software?

I often hear the argument that while open source software is ok to fit some needs, it falls short of what it can deliver when it comes to some demands of the academic job. I have always agreed with this position until I asked myself: Based on what do I say that it is so?

So I became my own guinea pig. I installed ubuntu on my netbook (well, the royal I, it was really Tom Parkers from the olpc volunteer community who did that for me), and started adding software that I need for work. I will start sharing my experiences over time on this blog, but I will also bring my computer to Software Freedom Day on Saturday in Auckland to show what I am doing.

What is Software Freedom Day?

Software Freedom Day celebrates free and open source software (FOSS), and there are several events happening in New Zealand spread over the weekend. As the site says:

‘The principles behind FOSS are underpinned by the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. You can read more about the four freedoms on the GNU website.’

The events kicked off yesterday in Warrington and there are more events today Friday, S

By Josh Brancroft on Flickr

aturday and Sunday in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

Friday 17th September, 2010

You can come from 4-6 pm to Albany Senior High School, the first open source high school and see what they are doing.

Saturday 18th September 2010

From 10 am to 4 pm we will be at Orion Cafe in Mt Eden in Auckland showing the one laptop per child computers, 3D printers, android phones and a lot more, including some presentations. And we have Sugar on a Stick to give away, but bring an empty 1G or 2G usb stick in case we run out of them.

Or if you are in Hamilton just drop by the Centre Place Mall.

Sunday 19th September 2010

Wellingtonians will have lots of fun stuff from 10 to 5 p at the Victoria University Pipitea Campus. The event is also free but you need to Register! (if your kids are coming, make sure you register them separately!) And they even have some Live music!

If you live near Tauranga, from 11 am to 3 pm activities will be happening at St Mary’s School.

And Christchurch will be sharing the FOSS love at the South Library ICT Learning Centre in Beckenham

Visit the sites, and get all the details of what each place is offering. There is plenty to feed the geek inside us!