Open science is the answer for global challenges

Last month the ACU and the South African Research & Innovation Management Association (SARIMA) put on a joint conference in Johannesburg, focussing on the theme ‘Research and innovation for global challenges’.

The ACU is the world’s first and oldest charitable university network, with the aim to support, develop and promote higher education across the Commonwealth and beyond. It is therefore fitting to focus this blog on one of the key talking points from the ACU-SARIMA conference: the need to open up scientific research at universities around the world, to encourage the sharing of information which in turn will lead to greater progress in overcoming the challenges currently facing communities across the globe.

This ties in with the current thinking from the United Nations (UN), which says 2015 is the year for global action. The organisation will be adopting a new set of goals in September to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a focus on lifelong education.

With these new development challenges, there’s a need for leadership to reconsider the way disciplines and sectors cooperate with each other. In research and innovation, for example, it has been standard practice to operate in silos driven by competition between elitist institutions who see their outputs as closely guarded secrets. To truly solve global challenges, open science is the answer.

‘We’ve got to a certain point where things are evolving by the micro-second,’ said Dr Anthon Botha, a self-dubbed futurist. In order for research and innovation to have an effective and impactful relationship with an evolving world, they need to keep up. Innovation, Dr Botha pointed out during his presentation at the conference, is being delayed by outdated financial systems and archaic international relations, both politically and in research institutes. A direct result of globalisation is the confluence of contexts: a problem in a developed country may be caused by political conflict in a developing country and vice versa. ‘We are approaching a moment in history where if we don’t learn how to work together, our species won’t survive,’ stated Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, also speaking at the conference.

‘What we need is new thinking, and open science is a new way of thinking,’ said Dr Botha. Open science is a movement towards encouraging a collaborative environment where anyone can partake in this game of pursuit. ‘At the heart of the concept is the idea that research methods and findings should be openly shared to encourage scientists and others to collaborate in solving scientific problems,’ said Naser Faruqui, Director of Science and Innovation at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The IDRC is among the first funding agencies to commit to creating and implementing an open science policy.

Faruqui pointed to the Foldit video game, where the general public was invited to participate in unlocking how proteins develop in the HIV virus. A group of 14-year-olds with a discerning eye for patterns solved, in 14 weeks, what scientists had been working on for ten years. We can expect to see the term ‘citizen-scientist’ showing up more often.

In order for open science to become a reality, there needs to be a complete paradigm shift across all levels. Institutions and heads of state will need to have earnest conversations with agendas that are egalitarian in nature, and businesses will need to revise their intellectual property policies. Creations of the mind, in open science, are nodes in a network. Dr Botha advocates the creation of a ‘citizen science’ curriculum where civil society needs to start focussing on creating a culture of volunteerism. Fortunately, Millennials (those born from the early 1980s to early 2000s) have typically been found to be more community-minded than previous generations.

But this movement towards a redefined society of collaboration is not only about being socially responsible human beings. ‘They won’t be developed unless they work in concert with the developing world,’ said Professor Habib of the elite-underclass dichotomy. ‘Don’t play games about internationalisation because, frankly, 70% of internationalisation is really not internationalisation. It is transnational arrangements established by some institutions in the North.’

The South African Department of Science and Technology (DST) is looking into research data infrastructure and how they can support the development of open science in this country. Professor Colin Wright, advisor to the DST’s National Integrated Cyber-Infrastructure System (NICIS), explained in his presentation that the focus is on developments in information technologies (IT) and how they can affect the practices of modern scientific research and roll-out of open science in South Africa. The DST’s mandate to invest more in IT to support the top end of science resulted in the establishment of the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC).

In response to the emergence of big data projects, the most notable being the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, the Department was ‘persuaded’ by the NICIS to launch the Data Intensive Research Initiative for South Africa (DIRISA). Professor Wright described it as being the ‘national framework upon which institutional and regional networks and establishments can rest.’ Through DIRISA, the NICIS wants the entities to operate more synergistically.

Research organisations and heads of state will need to incorporate the ‘CUDOS’ principles into their mission statements if they want to produce good scientific research that meaningfully contributes towards social development and change:

Communalism: equal access to scientific goods and a sense of common ownership to promote collective collaboration

Universalism: contribution to science regardless of race, nationality, culture, or gender

Disinterestedness: we need to act for the benefit of common scientific enterprise, rather than personal gain

Organised scepticism: scientific claims exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted

‘Our vision,’ said Faruqui, ‘is to improve people’s lives, and we can’t improve people’s lives if the knowledge we help support is not documented, shared and built on in a way that is conducive to this goal.’


Nolwandle Zondi is a science communication intern at the University of Pretoria. After graduating with a journalism degree from the same university, she wanted to make a living off of hounding politicians. Nolwandle has now grown tired of their rhetoric and instead has decided to report on science's ability to transform society. 

Access all of the conference’s presentations here:

Last modified on 20/05/2019
Tags: Africa, research, data, life-long learning, sustainable development