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Small Steps, Giant Leaps: Episode 129: Accelerating Discoveries with Open Science

Episode 129May 8, 2024

In this episode, Dr. Chelle Gentemann, Open Science Program Scientist for the Office of the Chief Science Data Officer, explains NASA’s initiative to make science more collaborative, accessible, and inclusive. Known as Transform to Open Science, or TOPS, the program encourages increased access to research and data.

Small Steps Giant Leaps podcast

Matt Kohut (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast. I’m your host for today’s episode, Matt Kohut. In each episode we focus on the role NASA’s workforce plays in advancing the agency’s mission through the development and sharing of knowledge.

Today’s guest, Dr. Chelle Gentemann, is the Program Scientist for NASA’s Open Science program and one of the cofounders of NASA’s Transform to Open Science initiative, or TOPS.          For 20 years she’s worked on passive microwave satellite missions from launch through decommission. She was awarded the American Geophysical Union’s Falkenberg Award and the Radiant Earth Foundation named her as one of 15 leading women in machine learning for Earth observation. She’s a passionate advocate for open science, open-source software, and inclusivity. Here’s our conversation.

Chelle Gentemann, thanks for joining Small Steps, Giant Leaps.

Chelle Gentemann: Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Host: So, let’s start with the big question here. For people who aren’t familiar with this term, how would you define in the most straightforward way what open science is?

Gentemann: There is an official US federal definition for open science, but it’s a little complicated. Open science is the principle and practice of making research products and processes available to all while respecting diverse cultures, maintaining security and privacy and fostering collaborations, reproducibility, and equity.

What that really means in practice: Open science is about being open. It’s sharing how you do your science. It’s sharing your data. It’s sharing your code. It’s working towards a more open and equitable scientific future.

Host: Can you tell us a little bit about the Transform to Open Science initiative at NASA and its primary objectives?

Gentemann: Yes. So, Transform to Open Science, or TOPS, as we call it, is a five-year initiative that started in 2023 with a Year of Open Science, and it really has three main goals. That’s to first increase the understanding and adoption of open science principles and techniques. So, we want more people thinking about open science and doing open science. Second, we want to broaden participation in science by historically excluded communities and we feel like those two things go hand in hand. And we feel like both of these things, doing open science and broadening participation, is going to get us to our third goal, which is to accelerate major scientific discoveries, because if we’re doing things more in the open, we’re more efficient, we’re faster, we’re better, and we have more voices in the room, more people participating, that’s when we get new discoveries.

Host: What motivated NASA to launch the TOPS project? And why do you see open science as an important part of today’s scientific landscape overall?

Gentemann:  Science is amazing. And it could be even better. Closed science, the way that many of us have been doing science for a long time, where we hoard information and resources, we create these silos of knowledge – and part of that is to retain a competitive advantage. This holds science back by limiting who can participate. And we know we need more voices that work together because only then are we going to find these new and better solutions.

And as some examples of that, there are several studies that show only about 30 percent of the published science is reproducible. And some of that’s because the research isn’t sharing. They’re not sharing their datasets, or they’re not sharing their code, or the methodology that they described isn’t sufficient to make reproducibility. So, journal articles, which started in the 1800s, they’re sort of an advertisement of what the research is, but right now most of them don’t actually allow you to just read the paper, understand it, and then immediately start to build on it. And that’s really what we want. We want more research that we can build on. We want research that we can rely on.

So, part of this is creating science that we can do more with. But also, this is about who can access science. Right now, 70 percent of all scientific literature is hidden behind a paywall. So, unless you’re part of an institution that has paid for a subscription or part of an organization that has paid for a subscription, you don’t – you’re not able to access that research. And while in the North and in the West many of our organizations and larger institutions have paid those subscription fees so their researchers can access them, globally this is a substantial barrier for participation in science.

I also know that 50 percent of all climate change research is behind a paywall. So, as we’re facing one of the largest challenges that humankind has encountered, 50 percent of our research remains inaccessible to most people. So, we really need to improve that. We need people to be able to access the research results, access the science so that they can participate, because we are going to need every voice. We’re going to need every person participating in this.

Host: And how is the TOPS project going to make NASA’s research and data more accessible, more inclusive, and more transparent? Are there some specific strategies that will address that?

Gentemann: The TOPS initiative sits within NASA’s Office of the Chief Science Data Officer and this office has an initiative called the Open Source Science Initiative and TOPS sits within that. And we’ve developed a strategy for TOPS that fits into that structure.

We’re working to advance four areas. The first is engagement, where we’re writing articles, attending conferences, and making sure that NASA leadership, when they talk to the public they’re including open science in their conversations.

We also have capacity sharing. So, sharing of resources. We’ve developed an introduction to open science called Open Science 101, and this was fully developed. It was a community effort. It’s available with an open license, so anybody can reuse it. And if you take that curriculum, you actually get a digital badge from NASA that you can put on your LinkedIn, on your social media showing that you know how to do open science.

We’re developing incentives around open science. So, we actually co-led development of an open science recognition challenge with the White House. A number of other agencies joined in this challenge to select five different projects that were all around open science practices to give them recognition and highlight those sort of collaborations.

And we’re working within existing opportunities as well. Just recently, NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal for 2023 was given to Fernando Peréz and Brian Granger for their development and co-leading of the open source Project Jupyter.

We are also working with universities through the open Helios program to support modernizing review promotion and tenure to really create incentives where people are at. And we’re moving toward more openness with the other federal agencies. So, we recognize that people do research in a community, they do research from many different federal agencies, and so we’ve partnered with 18 other federal agencies and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to have the Year of Open Science during 2023.

Host: You’ve mentioned the ways that NASA is partnering across the federal government. What kind of challenges or barriers are there to promoting open science, either within NASA or within the broader scientific community.

Gentemann: This is a hard one. It’s culture. And culture eats strategy for breakfast. So, one of the biggest barriers is essentially the status quo: “We’ve done science this way.” And different communities do science very differently. Some communities are very open about software but they’re very closed about data. Other communities are open about data but closed around software. So, one of the challenges that we’ve had is identifying these different communities within science and then looking at what are they doing really well? And where do they need more support? Where can we help them be more open in different areas? And what resources do they need to do that?

The other areas where there’s been challenges is this lack of incentives. And I mentioned some of the activities that we’re doing to try and increase and incentivize open science activities because being open, there’s a short-term cost for a long-term gain. And often people see that short-term cost, which is “I have to add metadata to my data. I have to be more inclusive. And that takes more time. I have to publish my software.” These things all take time. And in the short term often that’s what a day-to-day scientist sees who’s very busy and is being pulled in a hundred different directions.

What we try to promote is recognizing this long-term gain, that by doing these open practices your papers are cited more, you gain more collaborations, you gain more recognition. So, we’ve been listening to the community about their challenges and barriers and then trying to directly work on what we’re hearing.

Host: How does the TOPS project address inclusivity and diversity in science?

Gentemann: Removing the barriers to doing science is just the first part. Science can be a closed village with high walls that you somehow have to navigate or find a door or maybe somebody opens the door a crack for you to enter. What TOPS is trying to do is not only lower those walls by creating equitable access but open new doors that aren’t monitored so that anyone can participate in science. All of the different TOPS activities, the different goals are aligned with that vision.

Host: What initially inspired you personally to advocate for the TOPS mission? And how has your own sense of the importance of this work influence the project?

Gentemann: I’ve been a woman in science for over 25 years, and for the most part, I have experienced amazing, wonderful mentors and colleagues. And I have also experienced and witnessed harassment and discrimination. A few years ago I realized that I had sort of achieved my childhood dream. I was this really successful scientist. I was publishing. I was co-chairing national academy committees. And I was having the time of my life doing science.

But I sort of came to this position where I realized “Wow, this thing that I had dreamed of, I’m sort of doing it.” And I began to really think about what was next. I realized I could try and get a more important position or I could try to get more grants, but that didn’t quite sit right with me because where would that leave me in five or ten years? I would just accumulate more prestige or more privilege. But I have accumulated prestige. I have accumulated a reputation. I had these privileges that I had fought so long and hard for. And I took a deep look and I thought what would be most fulfilling would be to try and cash in all my chips and go all in to make science better for the next generation.

I would not be where I am without some of my amazing mentors and people, these people who shared opportunities with me, who put a ladder down to help me up. And I realized it was my turn to do that as well.

Host: Do you see open science as something that can help achieve greater gender diversity in science overall?

Gentemann: I see open science as a mechanism to achieve diversity in all aspects across all of science, to bring in people with all different types of experiences. And the reason that I think it’s a really good way to do that is not only does it improve science – it’s positive, it makes science more reproducible, it makes it more rigorous, it makes it more efficient – but the actions that you’re taking when you do open science, when you share data, when you share code, when you share your methods, it allows more people to participate. And I’ve seen firsthand over the 25 years I was in science how people would hoard datasets to help their favorite student or to even retain the rights for themselves so that they could just publish, publish, publish on that and not give anybody else the opportunity.

When you have to share openly, anybody can do that science. And they may do it differently than you. And that’s okay. That’s actually great. That’s what we want with science. We want multiple people looking at the same problem and coming up with different answers so that in the end we come up with a really robust solution. And it’s this sharing of power and privilege that is enabled by sharing your methods, your data, your software. I think that if we do this right, we expand who participates in science and we expand all of that power and privilege so that more people are in positions of power and are doing science in an equitable and inclusive way.

Host: Have you had any experiences during this TOPS project where you felt like you’ve had the opportunity to lead and overcome some of the big obstacles or resistance to open science?

Gentemann: Yes. I think this initiative touches on a lot of issues that people are sensitive about. It touches on broadening participation in science. But it also touches on competitiveness and competition in science. And these can be difficult conversations. So, throughout this project we’ve been very, very intentional about words and actions. And this project was really kickstarted by four women: myself, Yvonne Ivey, Isabella Martinez, and Cyndi Hall. And we each brought our lived experiences to sort of shape this strategy and this communication around the project. And we were all deeply, deeply interested in creating a project that would be actionable and impactful – so, words and actions. And these things really matter because you can’t have one without the other.

And this is really at the heart of the TOPS initiative. There are these really great things in science but there’s this real struggle between a new generation and these existing structures where science is being done. And those existing structures reinforce the power and privilege that they currently have. But we believe that everyone’s voice should be heard and should be counted and that it’s not enough to just open a door or give someone a seat at the table but to reconfigure the entire room so that not only do they have a seat but they also have a voice.

Host: You mentioned earlier that you’ve had mentors who were really powerful and had a huge impact on your career.

Gentemann: My Ph.D. advisor was probably my most influential mentor. And I think the magic that he brought to that experience for me was that – he was very senior, he was very experienced, and he had a lot of power and privilege. He was a tenured professor at a university. He was on science teams. And while I was doing my Ph.D. it was so frustrating, it made me so upset sometimes because I was asking questions and struggling, and I was really struggling on the topic that I had chosen. And I knew that he probably knew the answers and that he probably had a really good idea of what to point me in. But what he did is instead he just made sure I had the resources and the support, and he was always there to talk to, but he never gave me the answers. He really tried to give me freedom and autonomy to come up with something new. And that was an incredible experience where you feel supported, you have someone to talk to about these things, and they’re still giving you that freedom and that experience of really uncovering something for the first time.

The other part of that mentorship that was so important was the different doors that he opened for me. And he was just incredibly generous. I was the first author on the research that I did and that’s not always the case. He also invited me to science team meetings. He invited me to participate. And when I was giving a talk at a scientific conference, when people would ask questions, I answered. And I’ve seen a lot of advisors jump in and answer for their students. And I think that having that experience of someone who gave me autonomy, gave me freedom, and trusted me really changed my approach to science and really helped me become an independent scientist.

Host: What’s ahead for TOPS through their next year or so?

Gentemann: There are a lot of exciting things ahead for TOPS. And I think one of the things I love about this is coming up with a project and a strategy and working with the team and then you sort of set it free to the community. So, we have Open Science 101. We have this course that you can take through online, you can do it through tutorials, through workshops. We have different versions being developed. And most exciting is that it’s being moved to a community-led model. Other people are taking on leadership of this project and pushing it forward. And to me, that is a great sign of success.

So, they’re embracing open science and all of its complexity and nuances and they’re going to bring their new ideas about how to approach all of this to this project. And that is great because change is really hard and change is challenging, and TOPS is going to change just like science is changing, and it’s moving to be more open. And I think that is just a great place to be: constructively building a more equitable and open future.

Host: That’s a perfect place for us to conclude. Chelle Gentemann, thanks so much for joining Small Steps, Giant Leaps.

Gentemann: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you.

Host: That’s it for this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps. For a transcript of this show or more about Chelle Gentemann or the topics we discussed today, visit our Resources page at And don’t forget to check out our other podcasts like Houston We Have a Podcast or Curious Universe. Thanks for listening.