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Contextualizing open science

Sujatha Raman shares insights and ideas from her recent OECD 2024 talk on making open science a reality for the benefit of society.

Open science is fast becoming a part of the multilateral lexicon. The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science stresses the importance of opening science to society if we are to have a chance of tackling complex global challenges and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, the Recommendation calls for much more than opening research data and outputs to the wider community. Openness is expected to be two-way, with scientific communities being open to different forms of knowledge and societal input into the production of science.  

A critical issue for this new era in science-society relations is the vision of science that we bring to these dialogues. Paradoxically, in order to look outward and listen to other voices, open science requires us to look inward and reflect on how we understand and talk about science itself.  

For example, many stakeholders express concerns about  a decline of public trust in science and science-based technological solutions to global challenges. Rebuilding trust is commonly seen as a matter of information management where experts work to communicate simplified headline messages that ostensibly capture scientific consensus.

I contributed to a recent paper led by the ISC’s Centre for Science Futures in which we drew on research on science, public trust and misinformation to show why this strategy is misguided.

The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy

The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for Multilateral Policy

DOI: 10.24948/2023.10
‘The Contextualization Deficit: Reframing Trust in Science for
Multilateral Policy’. The Centre for Science Futures, Paris. 2023

Download report

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that it is possible for scientists to disagree for good reasons, that is, on good scientific grounds.

We tend to see scientific disagreement through the lens of the climate science debates where at least some of the most public controversies can be traced to bias and self-interest. We are familiar with manufactured controversies where powerful actors don’t like the message coming from science and so they work strategically to undercut it. We certainly need to be watchful for this pattern, but before we are quick to divide scientific voices into the right and the wrong, let’s take a pause.

On so many key questions – is Covid-19 airborne, should we wear face coverings, on what basis should we go into, or, indeed, come out of lockdown, or what vaccine should be prescribed for what age groups – we had highly committed scientists with years of expertise reach different conclusions about what the right thing to do was, both within countries and internationally. These often open and passionate debates typified what Dan Sarewitz has called an excess of objectivity.

Looking inward in the spirit of open science can help advance the understanding that scientific disagreement is not an anomaly. Indeed, on complex societal and global challenges where the stakes are high, science is more likely to be post-normal. Which means it is less amenable to highly simplified forms of messaging about what the science says.

Instead, we must find ways to negotiate different scientific perspectives and meet others halfway in good faith. In other words, there’s no perfect scientific answer to the challenges we face. There’s instead good judgment – or what we call ‘serviceable truths’, following Sheila Jasanoff – and the work it takes to get there.

Armed with a more reasonable and reasoned vision of science, we should be in a better position to prepare for open engagement with publics and civil society.

First, as we outline in our paper, publics are not just empty vessels to be filled with science. Depending on where you look, some publics may be highly organised with their own expert understanding of issues around, say, agricultural biotechnology or how we should respond to climate change. They may reject high-technology innovations because they believe there are better ways to address food security or planetary health. This too is part of the post-normal open science condition.

In other settings, issues that matter to publics may sometimes have little to do with science at all. Anthropologists who’ve studied vaccine resistance have shown that often, resistance is mediated by people’s experience of their healthcare system, of political institutions, or who they take to be a trusted expert. These things can’t just be wished away by trying to feed people more science – even post-normal science – when the issues that need addressing are institutional or cultural in nature.

Open science is critical for the Sustainable Development Goals. But ultimately, trust in this science requires not just messaging, but attention to context. Opening science to society to address global challenges requires a dedicated effort to put particular forms of knowledge in the context in which they are meant to inform practice. Contextualization of science needs to be taken as seriously as the doing of science itself.

Disclaimer: The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

Sujatha Raman is Professor at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), Australian National University (ANU). She leads the UNESCO Chair in Science Communication for the Public Good.

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