An era of open science

Last Updated 16 November 2021, 09:16 IST

Science has been humanity’s big brother. This is not an understatement, particularly when we appreciate how the applications of scientific knowledge have helped humans overcome several challenges.

When in crisis, especially during a pandemic, science has always come to our rescue in the form of drugs, vaccines, and medical equipment to fight omnipotent viruses. The role of science in shaping the world, right from the discovery of fire until today is described beautifully in Isaac Asimov’s book, Chronology of the World.

It continues to provide solutions to the problems of climate change, energy, food security, clean water, and sanitation. Science, today, is perceived as the driver of economic growth, thus justifying publicly funded science projects as “a return-on-investment”. It has always thrived on the freedom of human thinking, creativity, and the instinct to explore and understand the world.

The origin of science can be traced back to around 3000 BCE in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia which then evolved into Greek natural philosophy. However, history reveals many phases where religious, political pressures or censorships have hindered the progress of scientific enquiry.

Galileo Galilei’s ex-communication and Trofim Lysenko's use of politics to silence the critics of his Lysenkoism theory are some of many sad examples.

A battle

However, the modern liberation of science is a contemporary and ongoing phenomenon. There are many underlying challenges, that may not be apparent superficially, that hamper the free reign of research.

As a curious individual, one may have tried to access some research articles to learn more. Often people who try to access such research, return dejected when asked to pay a subscription charge of about $30 (approximately Rs 2,200) just to gain access to the full article.

Shockingly, some of these articles could be from India, published by our own researchers from a publicly funded project — yes, from our own tax money! This is how the industry of ‘scholarly publishing’ works — one that focuses on making money, with profit margins that rival Google.

The industry was created by Robert Maxwell whom Stephan Buranyi, a journalist, termed 'one of Britain’s most notorious tycoons' in his 2017 article in the Guardian titled, “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?”

Another mind-boggling example of how public-funded research is abused by corporations is the pharma sector. Without undermining the need for business enterprises to make profits, we must acknowledge that often such business interests impact the weakest sections of humanity who make a living on meagre resources. This highlights the need for balance between closed science that is driven by profit and open science that upholds equity.

An emerging movement

The open science movement has been gaining momentum. The movement aims to make scientific research, including resources and their dissemination and to provide access to all sections of society.

The movement intends to build a more inclusive, transparent, collaborative scientific ecosystem where the free flow of publications, data, and code can accelerate innovation and aid in achieving Sustainable Development Goals targets. Its practices include open research publication, open access, open-notebook practices that make scientific knowledge communication easier.

Let's look into “Covid Moonshot”, the world's largest open-science drug discovery effort started by the Weizmann Institute of Israel. The effort seeks to identify accessible and affordable Covid-19 antiviral pills. Its first clinical trials are expected in 2022 and it aspires to counter the global vaccine inequality.

The Moonshot started as a spontaneous virtual collaboration in March 2020 and since then more than 150 scientists have voluntarily contributed their research, “A safe, affordable, not-for-profit oral treatment for Covid-19 and related viral pandemics.”

Its effort proved the power of open science, receiving funding of £8 million from the biomedical charity organisation Wellcome. UNESCO also actively promotes open science and is developing its draft recommendations through an inclusive, consultative, multi-stakeholder process involving more than 100 countries and organisations.

It is expected to provide the first global standard-setting framework on open science which will subsequently receive approval in the November 2021 UNESCO General Conference.

The virtue of openness includes sharing of methodology, tools, data, and results, while accessibility includes easy availability of research in digital or physical formats at marginal costs and disabled-friendly scientific inquiry.

Open data implies that it is available to any interested individual for reuse and redistribution, which is possible only when it is published immediately after it is generated.

Gaining momentum

Open science can boost science, technology and innovation (STI) by the optimal use of scarce resources through a transparent practice of knowledge production and citizen science.

Many countries have adopted or are on the road to adopting an open science framework. India’s draft 5th STI policy also recommends an open science ecosystem. It explicitly indicates that science can no longer be practised in laboratory silos and that the entire society must be part of the developmental process.

There is also a need for Indian researchers and academicians to transcend geographic boundaries and engage more openly with countries looking beyond the usual collaborators from the West like the US, UK and Germany.

Whether Indian researchers are ready to embrace open science philosophy and go beyond their lab to engage with society is a question one needs to ponder. This is perhaps the closest that India has gotten to adopting the open science philosophy.

Its survival depends on how fast we adapt and adopt an inclusive framework that takes into confidence researchers at the ground level and creates awareness about the undeniable benefits of openness.

(The authors are DST-STI postdoctoral policy fellows at the Centre for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)

(Published 16 November 2021, 08:53 IST)

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