Ulrich Dirnagl

On the way to an ideal science discourse

Christine Prußky

Corona gives science a shakeup. One effect is that researchers discuss their ideas more openly and share their data and results earlier. That is Open Science. Does openness make research better? A conversation with Ulrich Dirnagl.

Professor Dirnagl, the corona virus has been raging for over six months now. So far, there have been about 800,000 deaths worldwide, countless livelihoods have been destroyed, and research  is switched to emergency mode. In your opinion the disaster heralds the birth of a new scientific culture. You have to explain that.

Ulrich Dirnagl: I wouldn't put it quite as strongly as that, but yes – at least when it comes to investigating corona, researchers are collaborating and working more openly to make faster progress. Open Science existed even before COVID-19, but the pandemic is giving a boost to the way we work. But this doesn’t mean that the whole system will be overturned.

Why not? 

The pandemic has not changed the basic parameters for science. Its incentive systems are not designed for open, transparent work. There are hardly any funding programs for Open Science. Researchers have no advantage if they share their research ideas and data and publish their results as preprints. Decisive for a career in science is the acquisition of third-party funding and publications in renowned journals.


What kind of science culture do you dream of? Three questions to Ulrich Dirnagl (in German)

by Christine Prußky

Do you proceed differently at the Charité?

We are at least starting to introduce further criteria for evaluating research performance. We have developed an algorithm that identifies those persons among the approximately 4,000 Charité researchers who share their data. They will automatically receive a supplementary amount of between 1,000 and 2,000 euros for their research. Applicants for open positions are asked to briefly describe previous Open Science activities in the application form. In addition, we send someone to the appointment committees to specifically ask applicants about their Open Science concepts.

And you reject those applicants who fail to put forward a suitable concept?

Of course not.  The focus remains first and foremost on the scientific quality. A well thought out Open Science concept is only one consideration among many – which is not to say that in some cases it might tip the balance. 

Open Science threatens that holy cow of science, the peer review process, in which hand-picked experts separate the wheat from the chaff. In Open Science, everyone assumes the role of reviewer. What is the advantage?

The peer review process as we know it has been in place since the 1960s. Back then, there was much less research work being done, and science was not as specialized as it is today. The probability of getting a sound assessment with relatively few reviewers was higher. However, it would be naïve to believe that a few high-profile experts could do justice to the quality check under today's complex science conditions. Even though peer review does lead to the identification of dubious contributions, it is not able to prevent such work from still being published somewhere at some point. Besides, peer review takes far too long. Researchers sometimes spend years thinking in the wrong direction. In Open Science, the community is involved from the very beginning, constructively discussing the ideas put forward, together with research plans and the intended results. For me, this represents the ideal science discourse!

Ulrich Dirnagl

The pandemic has a paralyzing effect, but also makes many things possible with regard to Open Science.

Ulrich Dirnagl im Büro

The office as an individual "think tank".

Peer review is often accused of promoting mainstream research. Is it easier to conquer new territory in a swarm?

I think that’s probably the case. If an idea were to be dismissed on the grounds that something like this had never existed before, then it would certainly be picked up somewhere by someone in the swarm. The swarm consists of many, very different experts – and not just old white men like me. Who has expertise has influence. That is decisive. Trolls or laymen can participate, but they will never be able to influence, let alone dominate the discourse.

Regarding the keyword discourse: Is it undergoing more change at the moment?

I think so. The more open exchange also increases the public understanding of science. Since Corona, terms such as "preprint" or "peer review" have been appearing in the media along with explanations of what they mean. This is something like a public information campaign on "How does science work?"

And discussion also takes place on Twitter. Does Twitter accelerate Open Science?


What does Open Science have to offer society?

Openness will certainly lead to a more efficient science, because errors will be recognized faster and made public. That is an advantage. But I have to admit: There is no evidence that science becomes better owing to Open Science. Open Science will not prevent useless research and results that are less than robust. The claim of better science through Open Science is plausible, but not provable. There is no country in which Open Science has become the benchmark for scientific work. All the leading scientific nations are sticking to the current working culture: I think the time has come to change that.

You are currently introducing Open Science at the Charité. What are the costs involved?

We currently have 2.5 million euros a year available for a variety of measures that help improve our science. This includes Open Science. Most of the money comes from the Federal Government, which finances the Berlin Institute of Health at the Charité and the Max Delbrück Centrum to 90 percent. In addition, there are grants from the British Wellcome Trust and the Volkswagen Foundation as well as other third-party funding sources. The transition to Open Science costs a great deal of money. The infrastructure for data storage alone is hugely expensive. Researchers need incentive systems and training so they can prepare data in such a way that it can be used. We’re developing instruments and methods for this purpose. These can also be used by others. So we are a kind of snow plough, behind which it is easier to move forward. Nevertheless Open Science costs time and money. Universities couldn't afford such an investment at the moment. What is very important for Open Science – apart from the resources – is that the management of an institution supports its scientists and recognizes their efforts. And then there are some idiosyncrasies of the German system that have to be dealt with.

Ulrich Dirnagl

Neue Ideen in historischer Umgebung ...

What do you mean by that?

The constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research, for example. It is a wonderful good and an important bulwark against outside interference in science. At the same time, however, it is also misused as a bulwark against introducing change when something goes wrong in science. We often hear that Open Science endangers the freedom of research. We do not see it that way. We never intervene in the research itself. Nevertheless, the topic comes up again and again at universities. Research funders have an easier life in this respect.

In what way? 

They can set the rules by which the game is played and tell applicants: If you don't like it, you are in the wrong place. For example, the Wellcome Trust allows applicants to quote preprints in applications. You could also create special funding lines for projects that provide for the replication of a key finding. The idea was once discussed in Nature as a prerequisite for publication, but was not implemented. It would have worked, because some people would be prepared to kill their grandmother to have a paper published in Nature. The German Research Foundation (DFG) could also introduce the replication requirement immediately, which would ensure more robust findings. There could be additional funding for the use of existing data. Moreover, the publication of null results could be covered in the conditions for funding. So, there are a thousand ways for public and private science funding agencies to support Open Science. They just have to do it.

In Person: Ulrich Dirnagl

Ulrich Dirnagl heads the Department of Experimental Neuropsychiatry at the Berlin Charité. He is Founding Director of the Quest Center at BIH (Berlin Institute of Health), which hosts the PREMIER project for quality assurance in biomedical research. The project is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. In an extensive conversation with the Berlin science journalist Christine Prußky, Dirnagl made it clear how important the topics quality, robustness, diversity and collaboration are to him. During a photo session with Gordon Welters, Dirnagl was happy to demonstrate his skateboard skills on the Charité grounds – in his favorite sport he even became the German freestyle champion at the end of the 1970s. 

Ulrich Dirnagl blogs under: To infinity, and beyond!