An era of open science


Science has been the big brother of mankind. That’s no understatement, especially when we appreciate how the applications of scientific knowledge have helped humans overcome several challenges.

In times of crisis, especially during a pandemic, science has always come to our aid in the form of drugs, vaccines and medical equipment to fight omnipotent viruses. The role of science in the formation of the world, from the discovery of fire until today, is beautifully described in Isaac Asimov’s book, Timeline of the world.

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

The origin of science dates back to around 3000 BCE in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, which later evolved into Greek natural philosophy. However, history reveals many phases where religious, political or censorship pressures have hampered the progress of scientific research.

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

A battle

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

As a curious individual, one may have tried to access certain research articles to find out more. Often times, people who try to access such research come back dejected when asked to pay a subscription fee of around $ 30 (around Rs 2,200) just to get access to the full article.

Surprisingly, some of these papers could be from India, published by our own researchers as part of a publicly funded project – yes, money from our own taxes! This is how the “scholarly publishing” industry works, an industry that focuses on money, with profit margins that rival Google.

The industry was started by Robert Maxwell, who Stephan Buranyi, a journalist, called “one of Britain’s most notorious tycoons” in his 2017 Guardian article titled “Does the company Incredibly Profitable Scientific Publishing is Bad for Science? “

The pharmaceutical sector is another bewildering example of how companies abuse publicly funded research. Without questioning the need for business ventures to make a profit, we must recognize that these business interests often impact the weaker sections of humanity who live on meager resources. This highlights the need for a balance between closed science that is driven by profit and open science that advocates for fairness.

An emerging movement

The open science movement has grown. The movement aims to do scientific research, including resources and their dissemination, and to provide access to all strata of society.

The movement intends to build a more inclusive, transparent and collaborative science ecosystem where the free flow of publications, data and code can accelerate innovation and help achieve sustainable development goals. Its practices include open research publication, open access, open notebook practices that facilitate the communication of scientific knowledge.

Let’s take a look at “Covid Moonshot,” the world’s largest open science drug discovery effort launched by the Weizmann Institute in Israel. The effort aims to identify accessible and affordable Covid-19 antiviral pills. Its first clinical trials are expected in 2022 and it aspires to counter the global inequality of vaccines.

The Moonshot started as a spontaneous virtual collaboration in March 2020 and since then over 150 scientists have voluntarily contributed to their research, “Safe, Affordable, Non-Profit Oral Treatment for Covid-19 and Associated Viral Pandemics.”

His efforts proved the power of open science, receiving £ 8million in funding from biomedical charity Wellcome. UNESCO also actively promotes open science and develops its draft recommendations through an inclusive, consultative and multi-stakeholder process involving more than 100 countries and organizations.

It is expected to provide the first global normative framework on open science which will then be approved at UNESCO’s General Conference in November 2021.

The virtue of openness includes the sharing of methodology, tools, data and results, while accessibility includes the easy availability of research in digital or physical formats at marginal costs and scientific inquiry tailored to needs. People with Disabilities.

Open data means that it is available to anyone interested for reuse and redistribution, which is only possible when released immediately after generation.

Gain momentum

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

Many countries have adopted or are in the process of adopting an open science framework. India’s 5th STI Policy Project also recommends an open science ecosystem. It explicitly states that science can no longer be practiced in laboratory silos and that all of society must be part of the development process.

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

Whether Indian researchers are ready to embrace the philosophy of open science and go beyond their labs to engage with society is a question to think about. It is perhaps the closest that India has come to adopt the philosophy of open science.

Its survival depends on how quickly we adapt and adopt an inclusive framework that gives confidence to researchers in the field and creates awareness of the undeniable benefits of openness.

(The authors are DST-STI Postdoctoral Fellows in Policy at the Center for Policy Research, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)