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.