Realising the potential of open science

Realising the potential of open science

The following article was written by Dr Sepo Hachigonta and Dr Aldo Stroebel. It was published in the Cape Times on 22 February 2022 under “Social Impact”. Dr Hachigonta is the director of Strategic Partnerships and Dr Stroebel the executive director for Strategic Partnerships at the National Research Foundation (NRF), an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation.

Information, data and knowledge, and the means by which they are acquired, processed, stored and communicated, have always been powerful drivers of human and social advancement.

During the past two to three decades, digitisation and data science have been at the core of socioeconomic transformation in unprecedented ways, presenting enormous potential for science systems and their application to society. However, despite the many opportunities brought about by digitisation, access to scientific information and data is still a major challenge for many researchers across the globe.

For example, while most research articles published today are distributed online, many scientific publishers have returned to the use of biased business models that offer limited to no access to data, and restrict access to information via paywalls.

And while the pay-to-read business model has become increasingly common among news publishing houses in recent years, the science community has had to pay to access articles in scientific publications for several decades via article processing fees, despite being the same community that produces and reviews these articles.

According to community moderator Marcus Hanwell, open science can be traced back to the 1600s, with the advent of scientific publications and the practice of reproducing experimental outputs in scholarly articles. In the modern digital age, open science can be traced back to the 1960s and ’70s, when e-books were invented and made openly accessible with the arrival of the personal computer, through digital sharing platforms such as Project Gutenberg.

The rapid expansion of the Internet in the 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion in access to digital information. Today, we can use any digital device to acquire, share and interact with information almost instantaneously. These technologies are ushering in innovations that have enabled us to progress from understanding relatively simple systems, to describing and analysing the highly complex systems that are at the heart of global challenges such as the Covid19 pandemic.

Powerful digital processes for data acquisition have created streams of so-called “big data” which flood into storage at high speeds from scientific instruments and experiments, from business transactions, and from social media. But equally important is “broad data”, which refers to the wide variety of data, some “big” and some “small, that reflect different aspects of the same complex phenomena. Such data, when integrated, can reveal deep, hitherto undiscovered relationships in complex systems such as the operation of cities, the spread and impact of infectious diseases, and numerous other phenomena in the social, environmental, economic and business domains.

The past decades have also seen drastic reductions in the cost and accessibility of computer power, allowing scientific experiments to be conducted at record speed and lower cost. For example, the human genome was sequenced for the first time in 2003, after 10 years of experiments costing in the region of $10 billion. Today, the same type of experiment takes about two days to run and costs less than $1 000 about R15 000.

Responding to the urgent need to define shared values and principles for open science, and to identify concrete measures for its implementation, the 41st Session of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Unesco General Conference, held in November last year, adopted the Unesco Recommendation on Open Science following a multi-stakeholder consultative process. The recommendation calls on UN member states (i) to set up regional and international funding mechanisms for open science, and ensure that all publicly funded research respects the principles and core values of open science; (ii) to invest in infrastructure for open science, and develop a framework outlining the requisite skills and competencies for those wishing to participate in open science; and (iii) to embrace the culture and practice of open science.

For the purposes of the recommendation, open science is defined as including movements and practices that aim to make multilingual scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone, to increase scientific collaboration and sharing of information for the benefit of science and society, and to open the processes of scientific knowledge creation, evaluation and communication to societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community.

As most of us know, it is one thing to develop excellent recommendations and policies, but quite another to implement them effectively. Fully implementing the Recommendation on Open Science will require member states to develop appropriate tangible mechanisms at both national and institutional level.

At a regional level, the African Open Science Platform (Aosp) – a multi-institutional and multidimensional initiative – makes a case for bold actions to mobilise the African scientific community in response to the opportunities and challenges presented by the digital world through open science. This ambitious platform provides African scientists with the necessary tools and concepts for practising open science, the stimulus for excellence in open science, and pathways to its application in the environment, business and society.

It provides a vehicle for strengthening the research enterprise on the African continent by promoting an integrated approach to policy, infrastructure and human capacity development in support of data-intensive research and innovation. The pilot phase of the Aosp was launched in 2017. In 2020, South Africa’s National Research Foundation NRF took on the hosting of the Aosp Project Office for a five-year period, with the implementation of activities scheduled for 2022.

The Aosp is supported by South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Committee on Data of the International Science Council, the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf), Bibliotheca Alexandria, and other regional networks. In South Africa, the formulation of national open science policies and programmes is being led by the DSI, the Department of Higher Education and Training, the NRF, Assaf, and Universities South Africa, among others.

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