Future Implications of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science

Future Implications of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science

At Science Forum South Africa on 07 December 2023, the Department of Science and Innovation held a talk titled Future Implications of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science which explored the 2021 adoption by 193 UNESCO members of the organisation’s Recommendation on Open Science and the implications that it has for the future of the science landscape in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science is the first international standard setting instrument on open science. It promotes:

  • A shared understanding of open science among UNESCO member states and sets out diverse paths to achieving it;
  • Develops an enabling policy environment for open science;
  • Invests in infrastructure and activities that contribute to open science;
  • Invests in training, education, digital literacy and capacity-building to support open science;
  • Fosters a culture of open science and aligns incentives to support it;
  • Promotes innovative approaches for open science at all stages of the scientific process; and
  • Encourages international and multi-stakeholder cooperation in the context of open science to reduce gaps in technology and knowledge.

Open Science can be defined as a knowledge sharing movement to make knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, accessible to all levels of society. Its aim is to make science and scientific research more transparent and to allow it to be freely disseminated, inclusive and useable to whoever wants it.

The keynote address was presented by Professor Geoffrey Boulton, Regus Professor of Geology Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh and member of the International Science Council Committee for Science Planning. He spoke of the three stages in history that have led to Open Science – the first being the advent of moveable type in China and Europe which opened the door to greater literacy and the spread of book-based knowledge; the second being the formation of science communities and science journals which drastically reduced the distance between those with scientific knowledge; and the third was the digital revolution of the last 30 years which enabled knowledge to transcend cultural and physical barriers, leading into the era of truly Open Science.

One of the most important objectives of Open Science is to address the problem of misinformation; to render Science immune to commercial or political interests. The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science is a major step in ensuring that science become more accessible. Prof Boulton also believes that universities have a critical role to play in facilitating this accessibility as they exist as huge storehouses of knowledge. Unfortunately universities tend to maintain a narrow perspectives with the commoditisation of ideas by focusing mainly on the production of research papers. In this scenario, the only winners are the journal publishers who stick to their historical barriers to knowledge access. According to Prof Boulton, this stranglehold falls short of what science needs. This problem intensified with the huge increase (around 47%) in papers published from 2016 to 2022.

Prof Boulton believes that Africa could become a leader in the Open Science movement but that it would take a large number, if not all, of the continent’s universities to adopt it.

Professor Geoffrey Boulton (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Adrian Tiplady, Deputy Managing  Director: Strategy and Partnerships at South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRF-SARAO), talked about how Open Science policy an can act as a mechanism for change in the science landscape. According to him, a good example of this was the speed of response to the COVID-19 pandemic which lowered many of the barriers of knowledge access.

Dr Tiplady stated that it was important to note that knowledge should be as open as possible and as closed as necessary, that is knowledge should be accessible as much as possible without infringing on factors such as statutory regulations or intellectual property among others. He also stressed the importance of flexibility in Open Science policy so that it can be adapted to the needs of each university as well as policy sustainability, and the ability to monitor and evaluate the implementation and impact of policy.

Dr Tiplady also outlined the intents of Open Science, i.e. open data; education and skills; rewards and incentives (rewards for researchers who practice Open Science and incentives for private sector companies investing in R&D and Open Science projects); research data infrastructure as the backbone of Open Science and a major component in breaking down barriers to access; and citizen science where members of society become active participants in areas such as data collection and monitoring.

Professor Madara Ogot, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nairobi and CEO of the UbuntuNet Alliance spoke about how his organisation facilitates Open Science through the provision of infrastructure in three areas – AfricRxiv, which streamlines the process of archiving the work of individual researchers and grant-funded collections through the provision of a cloud-based repository; Innovation Sandbox, which provides high-level computing resources for researchers in East and Southern Africa through the use of virtual machines, eliminating the need for universities and other institutions to invest in their own computing hardware and software systems; and Utafiti Africa, which curates funding opportunities for scientists looking to engage in research projects in their particular regions and fields of study. The final speaker, Mr Lazarus Matizirofa, Associate Director: Research, Scholarly Communication, Digital Systems & Services at the University of the Witwatersrand, looked at the state of Open Science and Open Access in Africa, maintaining that it remains fragmented with many African countries not having achieved the same level as South Africa in these areas. He emphasised the need for academics and academic libraries to unite in order to increase the visibility and impact of Open Science and Open Access.

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