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Why do scientists do research? Personal motivation, social impact and politics

A thoughtful and thought-provoking blog by Cameron Neylon, a bioscientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK tackles the question of values and motivations in scientific research and the question of public support for science, through government and taxpayers. His major topic is why and how he does research and why there should be public support for this activity. But most tellingly he tackles cogently the dislocation that has happened in the 21st century between motivated scientists, their methods of carrying out and reporting on their research and the public policies that recognize this research effort.  The picture Neylon  paints of his own research – methodology to study complex biological structures – is of a high technology, collaborative and multinational research environment, in which scientists build on each others’ work in an open environment.

This is germane to our South African context, in which government policy on reward and recognition systems for individual researchers and universities does not seem to recognise the ways in which research has changed in the knowledge economy and how social and development impact can be delivered these days. With the IPR Act about to be enforced, this is even more of a burning issue for South African researchers. Neylon paints a picture of a post-war policy approach that treats science as a way of dealing with threats… ‘The war against cancer, the war against climate change. But evaluating his own research motivations, he identifies the need to make a positive impact on the world as his main driver. And the most effective way to do this, he argues, is by collaboration:

Because I want my work to be used as far as is possible I make as much as possible of it freely available. Again I am lucky that I live now when the internet makes this kind of publishing possible. We have services that enable us to easily publish ideas, data, media, and process and I can push a wide variety of objects onto the web for people to use if they so wish. Even better than that I can work on developing tools and systems that help other people to do this effectively. If I can have a bigger impact by enabling other peoples research then I can multiply that again by helping other people to share that research. But here we start to run into problems. Publishing is easy. But sharing is not so easy. I can push to the web, but is anyone listening? And if they are, can they understand what I am saying?

… More open research will be more effective, more efficient, and provide better value for the taxpayer’s money. But more importantly I believe it is the only credible way to negotiate a new consensus [sic] on the public funding of research. We need an honest conversation with government and the wider community about why research is valuable, what the outcomes are, and how the contribute to our society. We can’t do that if the majority cannot even see those outcomes. …

At a social level, he argues that this is a technical and legal issue, and one of interoperability: sharing through agreed formats and vocabularies and using licences that do not place barriers in the way of mutual use of data. Process interoperability is even more important: ‘If the object we publish are to be useful then they must be able to fit into the processes that researchers actually use.’

But there are challenges at the political level: what scientists do and how they do it is not evident to the public that funds research and this could lead to a failure of funding – a real risk in the South African context, where the credibility gap is probably even wider than in the UK.

We need at core a much more sophisticated conversation with the wider community about the benefits that research brings; to the economy, to health, to the environment, to education. And we need a much more rational conversation within the research community as to how those different forms of impact are and should be tensioned against each other.  We need in short a complete overhaul if not a replacement of the post-war consensus on public funding of research. My fear is that without this the current funding squeeze will turn into a long term decline. And that without some serious self-examination the current self-indulgent bleating of the research community is unlikely to increase popular support for public research funding.

In a South African university sector which is driven by recognition based on journal articles and in which there tends to be a handful of public intellectuals who convey the broader results of scientific research to the government and the public, we could do worse than engage in the way that Neylon suggests with the potential that we have in a technological age to open up the whole of the research process, making for the maximum usage of the research that is produced. This is of vital importance in  the African research environment, where failures in effective communication means that we are constantly reinventing the wheel with frighteningly scarce resources. But even if we focus only on South Africa, where the new Minster of Higher Education and Technology is asking what has happened to research for the public good in South Africa, we could do worse than heed Neylon’s words.

We need an honest conversation with government and the wider community about why research is valuable, what the outcomes are, and how the contribute to our society. We can’t do that if the majority cannot even see those outcomes. The wider community is more sophisticated that we give it credit for. And in many ways the research community is less sophisticated than we think. We are all “the public”. If we don’t trust the public to understand why and how we do research, if we don’t trust ourselves to communicate the excitement and importance of our work effectively, then I don’t see why we deserve to be trusted to spend that money.

Read the whole blog – it is  essential reading in our current political and social climate.

Winds of change – ivy league universities make mileage from open access

2009 might turn out to be the year in which the tipping point has been reached in scholarly publishing. There is an increasing tide of criticism of conventional, commercially-driven journal publishing and its systems for evaluating and ranking scholars and universities.  For example in a scathing article published in Times Higher Education last month Sir John Sulston, chairman of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and Nobel prizewinner in the physiology or medicine category in 2002 is quoted as saying  ‘[Journal metrics] are the disease of our times.’

But it is a crystal-clear spring day in Cape Town today, so let’s opt for the good news. And that is that Harvard and four other leading universities in the US are leveraging considerable strategic benefit from adopting open access.  Harvard has launched DASH,

its open access repository; a group of 5 leading universities, including Harvard, have launched a Compact for Open Access Publication; and, in support of this Compact, Harvard has developed  HOPE – its policy for the management of for funding support for open access publication.  This is a policy that could well serve as a model for universities wanting to tackle this issue.

From a South African perspective, do our leading research universities, which currently compete fiercely to get journal articles into the journal indexes in order to corner a place in international university rankings, need to start rethinking their strategies to concentrate more on providing access to their scholarship? And given that South African universities are in even greater need of getting readership for their research and suffer much more than the well-endowed US institutions from ever-escalating subscription costs, should we not be more active in our support for open access authorship?

What is striking in Harvard University’s announcement of the launch of its open access repository, DASH, is the way the university is using this launch as a powerful marketing exercise to promote the contribution that open access can make to profiling the quality of its scholarship:

“DASH is meant to promote openness in general,” stated Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. “It will make the current scholarship of Harvard’s faculty freely available everywhere in the world, just as the digitization of the books in Harvard’s library will make learning accumulated since 1638 accessible worldwide. Taken together, these and other projects represent a commitment by Harvard to share its intellectual wealth.”

Visitors to DASH ( can locate, read, and use some of the most up-to-the minute scholarship that Harvard has to offer. DASH users can read “Anticipating One’s Troubles: The Costs and Benefits of Negative Expectations” by Harvard College Professor Dan Gilbert. Markus Meister, Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, weighs in with “LED Arrays as Cost-Effective and Efficient Light Sources for Widefield Microscopy,” while Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow asks “After Brown: What Would Martin Luther King Say?”

From Abu Ghraib to zooarchaeology, from American literature to the Zeeman effect, more than 1,500 items can be located in DASH today, with the number increasing every week. As vital as the repository is to current work, DASH also houses a growing number of retrospective articles and papers. Contributors include Harvard President Drew Faust and University professors Robert Darnton, Peter Galison, Stanley Hoffman, Barry Mazur, Stephen Owen, Amartya Sen, Irwin Shapiro, Helen Vendler, and George Whitesides.

The Compact for Open Access Publishing has been launched by Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, and the University of California, Berkeley. In the first instance, this is profiled as a public good intervention, but it also takes account of the increasing pressure that is being placed on library budgets and hence on access to research, as a result of rising journal costs in a recessionary climate. A key goal of the compact is to ensure that universities have in place support mechanisms to provide funding for scholarly authors publishing in open access journals, in those cases where author fees are charged. This is seen as a way of levelling the playing fields:

‘The compact supports equity of the business models by committing each university to the timely establishment of durable mechanisms for underwriting reasonable publication fees for open-access journal articles written by its faculty for which other institutions would not be expected to provide funds.’

This is a conscious effort to plot a path from an old model to a new. In an interview on the launch of DASH and the Compact for Open Access publishing, Stuart Schieber, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communications at Harvard, is clear – and as articulate as ever, about the need to change the system:

Scholarly publishing is going through a transformation as a result of systemic problems in the underlying business models, which have led to a spiral of hyperinflating costs, journal cancellations, and reducing access to the scholarly literature. With the economic downturn, this access problem will only be exacerbated. DASH is an attempt to solve the symptom of reduced access, at least to our own articles. But we need to turn our attention to the underlying problem, to find sustainable alternatives to the dysfunctional subscription-based business model that has supported journal publishing in the past.

Over the decades, academia has established a substantial infrastructure to support scholarly publication based on that business model—publishers to manage logistics and production, subscription agents to handle order processing, library budgets to pay for the subscriptions, overhead from grants to fund those library budgets, and so forth. We need to start establishing the infrastructure to support alternative models, and to get the mechanisms of scholarly communication on a sound, sustainable footing.

There are lessons to be learned all around, here, about the ways in which the world’s leading universities address their strategic goals.

Medical Journal Ghostwriting

The New York Times has published an article about the use of ghost writers from drug companies to produce journal articles that then go out under the names of academics in US universities. This is yet another example of problems in the ethical standards of the big journal publishers and the morality in pockets of the global scholarly prestige system.

Senator moves to block medical ghostwriting

A growing body of evidence suggests that doctors at some of the nation’s top medical schools have been attaching their names and lending their reputations to scientific papers that were drafted by ghostwriters working for drug companies — articles that were carefully calibrated to help the manufacturers sell more products.

Experts in medical ethics condemn this practice as a breach of the public trust. Yet many universities have been slow to recognize the extent of the problem, to adopt new ethical rules or to hold faculty members to account.

Read the rest of the article here

Public Health and IPR Act in the headlines – at last

Business Day yesterday published my story on the clash between WHO’s Public Health strategy and the South African IPR Act (see the gray area blog article on the same topic a few weeks ago for a different version of the same argument). I am glad that there is at last some discussion of these issues in the media, which tends to treat IPR issues as too arcane to engage with, although the Treatment Action Campaign has gone a long way towards dissipating that view.

In the mean time, the discussion on IPR and public health in developing countries continues unabated. There is an interview in the IP Watch newsletter with Ellen t’Hoen, the senior advisor on intellectual property and medicines patent pool at UNITAID, a financing mechanism for the scale-up of treatments for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  t Hoen recently published a book entitled, The Global Politics Of Pharmaceutical Monopoly Power.

The concern t’Hoen expresses relates to potential problems with the availability of cheaper generic medicines in developing countries. The countries that use the DOHA provisions for the import of generics for public health reasons (mostly for HIV AiIDs) rely heavily on imports from India.  Now , she says, there is a change looming that is likely to threaten this (perfectly legal) supply:

Indian producers are able to make generic versions of these medicines because of the 1970 Indian Patents Act which excluded product patents for medicines. As of 2005, India has to comply with the TRIPS Agreement and has started to grant product patents on medicines. So very soon this is going to change. Generic versions of newer drugs will not become available automatically until after the 20-year patent term has run out. Unless of course India starts granting compulsory licences or other mechanisms are put in place to ensure that generic producers can continue to play this role, such as the patent pool.

‘t Hoen has sharp words to say about the fact that special provisions for affordable drugs in developing countries, at the insistence of the rights holders,  apply only to neglected diseases and exclude non-communicable diseases. Asked whether there was significance in this distinction, she replied, ‘Well from a medical point of view, of course there isn’t – it’s whether you die of AIDS or whether you die of heart disease… well, you’re dead. It’s just as serious.’  She is equally sharp with the argument that patent protection is needed to ensure research and development of new drugs and limit the supply of new drugs for developing country diseases:

In the past pharmaceutical companies have en masse abandoned research into neglected diseases. That’s why they became neglected diseases. Much of the innovation for tropical diseases comes from military research and government research that comes out of the old colonial systems: the tropical disease centres and the Vietnam War, which gave for example a number of malaria drugs.

So I don’t quite see that argument. I don’t think that if we close down the generic industry in the developing world that big pharma will spontaneously start reinvesting in tropical neglected diseases.

This is disturbing but very cogent stuff about why IPR does matter – read it.

South African Higher Education Minister weighs in on access to knowledge at UNESCO conference

At the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, a roundtable session on Africa brought Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s new Minister of the new Higher Education Ministry to the fore.

In the official online report on the round table, his speech is reported as follows:

Encouraging the production of indigenous knowledge is indispensable to meet the continent’s development challenges. “The term ‘knowledge society’ means two different things in developed and developing countries: one is the producer and one is the consumer”, said Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, South Africa. Speaking on behalf of the 53-member conference of Education ministers in Africa he delivered some pithy observations on the challenges facing the Second Decade of Education for Africa: lack of access to indigenous knowledge (as “there had been no significant break with the colonial era”); gender imbalance, especially at the leadership level, and the interconnected challenges of gender, racial and ethnic discrimination.

Mr Nzimande criticized the overemphasis on basic education to the detriment of higher education. “Education must not be approached in an atomized or fragmented manner but in a holistic manner”. While he believed that academic freedom was under threat, and that governments needed to guarantee it, responsibility for academic freedom went both ways and institutions had to be accountable too.

Nzimande is also given prominence in the Inside Higher Education report on the conference. This   report details how Philip Altbach spoke of a revolution in higher education and John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning talked about how the use of transformative technology can bend the ‘iron triangle’ of access, quality and cost for developing country knowledge.

In the roundtable on African higher education, however, Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, lamented the continent’s overall status as a consumer of knowledge, as opposed to a producer. “Over the last few decades, some things have not changed. There’s been no significant break in relations of knowledge production between the colonial and post-colonial eras. African universities are essentially consumers of knowledge produced in developed countries,” he said.

“Virtually all partnerships tend to be one-sided. This is not only negative for the African continent, but we believe it also deprives global higher education of access to the indigenous knowledge of Africa,” Nzimande said.

This is an encouraging sign that the new ministry might be looking at effective and democratic research dissemination and publication as one of its key strategies.

More in Inside Higher Education, An Academic Revolution 7 July 2009