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Open Science: Preparing For 2021 And Beyond

By Dr. Rajesh Tandon:

UNESCO assembly of 193 member states would be approving in its 41st meeting of General Conference in November 2021 a set of Recommendations on Open Science. The rationale for these recommendations, as agreed to by member states, is to promote science which is open to the well-being of society, locally and globally. The first draft of these Recommendations has highlighted several principles: science as public good, open access to data and scientific knowledge, open access to practitioners and principles of inclusion, equity and diversity.

The COVID 19 pandemic of the past year has demonstrated the societal benefits of science and shared, open access to data from research conducted around the world. This openness to sharing emerging results of nature of the virus, the efficacy of various types of preventive and curative treatments and testing of vaccines has now enabled policy-makers and public health staff to be able to plan systematic prevention and treatment of the virus in the new year.

A scientist collects vials in a lab. Image source: PxHere.

Days before the end of 2020, a unique legal case has been mounted to block open access to science and its findings. Three major publishers of scientific books and journals—Elsevier, Wiley and ACS—have filed a suit in Delhi High Court to block open access provided by Sci-Hub and others. The industry of scientific publications has gradually become a hugely profitable business over the past few decades, with a handful of American and European publishers exercising monopolistic control. Research funded through public resources, free manual and intellectual labour provided by researchers and authors and free peer review conducted by researchers then is appropriated by publishers charging huge subscriptions and prices. If authors want open access of their publications, they have to pay for it as well!

It is indeed a major attack on public interest, especially at this juncture when the open access to data during the pandemic has been saving human lives. It is a direct challenge to UNESCO’s commitment to building a global consensus on principles and procedures of Open Science this year. As UNESCO’s official consultation process was carried forward last year, several other efforts were made to engage a wider section of stakeholders in deliberating principles and protocols for Open Science.

One such initiative, led by our UNESCO Chair on Social Responsibility of Higher Education, co-convened 11 consultations throughout all regions and major languages during past three months. The background paper for these consultations is entitled Open Science Beyond Open Access: For and With Communities. The paper and subsequent consultations involving nearly 1000 researchers, policy-makers, students, civil society from nearly 45 countries, especially Global South, highlighted the critical need for moving beyond open access to data and scientific findings to fellow researchers. It argues for Open Science to become open to society and its many practitioners. During the pandemic, frontline health-care practitioners, community organisers and educators, and civil society members also needed scientific knowledge to effectively perform their roles in preventing the spread of infection and caring for those infected. Thus, openness to society’s various stakeholders is essential for science to become truly responsive and accountable.

Women in Kolkata participating in a community survey, offering their inputs and knowledge. Photo courtesy: Biswarup Ganguly.

Open Science needs to go beyond these first steps towards openness by embracing openness to different knowledge systems and epistemologies. Indigenous knowledge systems are prevalent widespread around the world, though they have been systematically devalued in recent decades. During the past year, such indigenous knowledge—grandmother’s recipes as some would label them simplistically—was put to widespread use in local communities and households in many parts of the world. In the absence of clarity about the virus and its prevention available to households, many began to embrace local practices based on herbal and family knowledge. The pandemic has demonstrated once again the urgent need to include all forms of knowledge systems in Open Science, within a perspective of knowledge democracy.

Therefore, it is heartening to note that the first draft of UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science lays stress on inclusion of indigenous and other marginalized knowledge systems as an integral part of common and shared understanding of Open Science. These Recommendations are also emphasizing linguistic diversity of conduct and dissemination of science as an effort to ‘decolonise’ knowledge. Highlighting the significance of citizen and participatory science as a part of Open Science policies, these Recommendations argue for enhanced financial and institutional support to such streams of science, not in isolation of, but in synergy with, other streams.

A glimpse of exhibits at the Indian Science Congress, Kolkata, 2013.

As per its centenary old tradition, Indian Science Congress is holding its 108th annual conference next week, starting from January 3. Being conducted virtually and hosted by Symbiosis International (Pune), the theme of this conference is Sustainable Development with Women Empowerment. Given the experiences of the past year, this theme is most appropriate to identify not just contributions of science (and technology) to sustainable development, but also what kinds of technology is relevant for post-pandemic ordained ‘new’ normal of inclusive, local and self-reliant development. The focus on women’s empowerment is explicitly meant to enhance women’s participation in science (through STEM) and leadership of scientific institutions and policy-making. Important as this focus is, exploring women’s knowledge systems in a decolonized perspective may further deepen women’s contributions to sustainable development. Many studies have shown how women’s knowledge had been excluded through patriarchal systems in human history around the world. Lest we think it was a matter of the past, the exclusion of women’s knowledge through labels of ‘witchcraft’ still continues in this country.

It is hoped that the forthcoming Indian Science Congress next week will deliberate upon UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science, since it is the largest gathering of Indian scientists, as the Government of India and UNESCO work towards finalizing these recommendations. Amongst the many issues mentioned above in the emerging discourse of Open Science, women’s knowledge and indigenous knowledge are two most critical domains for sustainable development in 2021 and beyond.

The COVID 19 pandemic has alerted our societies, and scientists, to reexamine openly the assumptions behind Open Science as we all attempt to ‘build back better’ in 2021 and beyond.

Originally published in The Times Of India on January 2.
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