A Vaccination site in Pomona, Calif. speed was a critical factor in the development of the coronavirus vaccines. Ringo Chiu/shutterstock
A Vaccination site in Pomona, Calif. speed was a critical factor in the development of the coronavirus vaccines. Ringo Chiu/shutterstock

The COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide mobilization of researchers that cooperated to study the disease and develop treatments and vaccines revealed something that might seem obvious but is nevertheless worth saying: The faster and more seamlessly scientists share research and methods, the faster problems are solved and discoveries made. Certainly, when the problem is a potentially deadly disease that’s flying around the planet, speed is of the essence.

But COVID-19 is hardly the only important societal problem in need of scientific solutions. And that’s why some big movers in philanthropy are using the power of their grantmaking to transform the culture of science itself into a more fully open endeavor, where researchers share methods and findings from start to finish, as transparently and immediately as possible.

This drive toward openness is not new, in either public or philanthropic spheres. For years, we’ve seen calls for open access to scientific journal articles, traditionally locked behind the publishers’ subscription paywalls. Key government funders of health research, including the National Institutes of Health, have recently revised data-sharing guidelines to support more openness in research, driven in part by the recognition that taxpayer-funded research should be freely available. Private funders like the Gates Foundation and HHMI have already implemented similar requirements of their grantees.

We’ve also seen the expansion of access to preprints—pre-publication drafts of research articles—which played an important role in the race against COVID-19. Among these moves is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s funding of medRxiv (pronounced “med-archive”), a free online source of medical and health science research. CZI also funds a related site, bioRxiv, a preprint server for biological research articles. And universities are also in the process of establishing open repositories of research articles.

To be sure, open science is about far more than free access to journal articles. Its proponents are reexamining the whole of the research endeavor, such as the sharing of lab work and techniques, the underlying data, and even the computer code researchers develop to conduct their discovery. The goal is to enable scientists to learn of each other’s work and build upon it, and to do so as quickly as possible.

Almost five years ago, several leading science-oriented philanthropies that share a vision for open research partnered to establish the Open Research Funders Group (ORFG), which works to push widespread adoption of open science and open data practices by developing practical solutions, identifying best practices in policy and implementation, measuring impact, and spreading their findings with stakeholders in the research community. ORFG members and supporters number about 20, including many of the most recognizable philanthropic names in science funding: Robert Wood Johnson, Gates, Moore and Sloan foundations, Wellcome, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, and more.

Opening up science and research, the ORFG states, “will benefit society by accelerating the pace of discovery, reducing information-sharing gaps, encouraging innovation, and promoting reproducibility.”

Recently, ORFG Director Greg Tananbaum co-authored an article with Arizona State University President Michael Crow in Scientific American. In it, they called upon their peers in philanthropy to help remake society’s approach to research by embracing open science practices and dismantling “the barriers—including article paywalls, data hoarding and siloed work—that chronically impede scientific progress.”

“If rapidly and openly sharing research data and papers is critical to understanding and combating coronavirus, doesn’t the same hold true for cancer? Heart disease? Climate change?” they wrote. “The scientific community—moving with great speed and clarity of purpose—has clearly signaled that open science is the most efficient way to tackle issues that have a significant and direct effect on the lives of the general public.”

Open science, wrote Crow and Tananbaum, is also good economic policy, citing the Human Genome Research Project, an international effort completed in 2003, which placed its results in the public domain. That commitment to open science generated nearly $800 billion in economic benefits between 1988 and 2010, they noted, a return on investment of $141 for each dollar of the federal government’s investment in the project.

The members of the ORFG collectively provide about $10 billion in grantmaking annually. While that’s not nearly as much as the federal government (the NIH alone has a budget of more than $40 billion; the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, not to mention businesses, provide billions more), it gives the funders real clout. And for now, the ORFG is working to spark change through the avenues where its members’ voices and dollars have the clearest impact.

“No doubt there is nontrivial spillover across academia, philanthropy and public policy,” Tananbaum told me. “But we believe our best ability to affect change is in the philanthropy sector, and that we must lead when it comes to showing how open policies can be embedded into the research process.”

Philanthropy, as mentioned above, has been making progress in open science. The establishment last year of Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s (ASAP) is an open-science initiative funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and implemented through the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to accelerate progress.

“There’s a growing realization in philanthropy that open research is the right thing to do for science and for society,” Tananbaum said.