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Science and society: key points from our Science as a Global Public Good paper

The vision of the ISC is of science as a global public good, but what does this mean for science and society? Our Science as a Global Public Good paper considers two main points in addressing this question which we will summarise in this blog: As a global public good, how does science respond to societal needs? And how is the social contract between science and society evolving?

The International Science Council, as the global voice for science, is committed to a vision of science as a global public good. All human beings are fundamentally similar and interconnected because of their dependence on Earth’s ecosystems and the needs that those ecosystems fulfil, such as food production, clean water supply, disease regulation, climate regulation, and so on. As collective knowledge has been the main driver of collective human progress, the production of public value offers benefits to all. Therefore science, as a special form of knowledge, methodologically disciplined and tested against reality, can provide immense value as a global public good.

“Scientific knowledge, data and expertise must be universally accessible and their benefits universally shared. A mutually supportive global community of science carries responsibility for this by ensuring inclusivity and equity, including in opportunities for scientific education and capacity development.”

– Excerpt from Statute II, paragraph 4, ISC Statutes and Rules of Procedure

As a global public good, how does science respond to societal needs?

While it is important for science to respond to societal needs by creating new knowledge enabling new activities, new technologies and innovations, the utility of knowledge should not uniquely be considered through the “reductive lens of supply and demand”. It is the Council’s belief that science must maintain a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry and expand of the boundaries of knowledge.

Indeed, much scientific knowledge does not contribute to national economies and GDP growth but is inspiring to human imagination, and in this way is very much a non-excludable and non-rivalrous good. Additionally, in the same way that humanity has considerably threatened the future of the environment to satisfy immediate development priorities, science must not neglect the future by considering the immediate term to be its only priority.

Though perceptions of a world facing convergent crises threatening humanity are growing, the international scientific community is increasingly making its collective voice heard in confronting this challenge, as global solutions require global involvement. In this context, science must not lose focus on the need to be inclusive and must incorporate the knowledge and priorities of all regions, particularly those who will suffer the most if global trends do not change for the better. The reality of a global science community is growing, but it will only be real when open to wider forms of knowledge and when creating global knowledge commons able to effectively respond to grand challenges.

To respond to societal needs, science must also consider the importance of governments, as they are the ones who articulate priorities and set budgets for the funding agencies within their national science systems. Whilst considering the power of governments, scientists and researchers should defend the freedom to follow their own inspiration as a way of maximizing the return on investment in research. In many regards, scientists don’t necessarily know what their findings could contribute to at first, but some discoveries, whether intended or accidental, eventually turn out to be of great use. For example, the most famous and important accidental discovery is Fleming’s miracle medicine, penicillin, though his initial research was on staphylococci. In the same way, the interactions between the public and the private sectors must not be underestimated in facing contemporary challenges. Both can serve the public good by sharing ideas, research, and data, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Science and society: an ever-evolving social contract?

Science’s priorities for serving the public good, that of the exploration of processes in nature and society as well as the pursuit of effective responses to emerging societal priorities, influence the relationship between science and society, the nature of their social contract, and the social organization of the scientific process. The social contract between science and society has always operated on the same basis; with public funding, science creates and communicates discoveries to society. However, over the years priorities for science have largely evolved and so too has its social organization, resulting in a shift to a social contract in which science is open to society, transparent and participative.

The open science movement which is gaining momentum today is the manifestation of this evolution, seeking to make scientific research and its dissemination accessible to an inquiring society as part of the co-creation of knowledge for the global public good. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated open science in action and exposed some of the processes that hinder the effectiveness of science in contributing to the global public good. With the adoption of UNESCO’s Recommendation on Open Science, the potential for change to a ‘new normal’ is within reach but will require engagement from the international scientific community to ensure that this new era of science is well adapted to the service of the global public good.

All this and more in our position paper:

Science as a Global Public Good

A position paper of the International Science Council. November 2021.

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