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Towards common standards to promote effective, responsible and creative science systems

A newly launched monitoring exercise aims to measure how well national science systems worldwide are doing on topics such as scientific freedom and open science, and the perspectives of researchers and scientific associations are crucial.

In 2017 the General Council of UNESCO adopted a Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers with the aim of setting common standards for the operation and values of effective science systems. A first monitoring exercise for the Recommendation is just getting under way, and gathering the views of scientists and scientific associations on how to achieve the best outcomes for science is a crucial part of the monitoring. We spoke to April Tash, who is UNESCO’s lead specialist on the Recommendation, to find out more.

UNESCO is currently undertaking a consultation on implementation of the 2017 Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers. Can you tell me more about the Recommendation?

The Recommendation is an agreement made in 2017 between all the countries of the world, to agree a general framework of common standards and common approaches for science everywhere. It sets the tone for what they agree they will write into national policies and laws in the next couple of years, and put into practice in their institutions. It’s supposed to be used at the national level, and compliance is being promoted now, with check-ups every four years.

What does ‘science’ include in this context?

In this context science is an activity that everyone should be able to join, and that produces scientific knowledge. A lot of the Recommendation is about how can that knowledge move around the world, given that some scientific knowledge is a global common good and also that openly exchanging results, hypotheses and opinions is at the very heart of science. By this agreement, the governments acknowledge science is a common good also at home. Science is a very important part of every culture, as well as the culture of humanity, and, as such, it requires certain special conditions and investment.

Even the smallest countries with difficult conditions want to use the resources and the scientific potential of their citizens. For centuries science has been something that can be done well anywhere in the world, but today, science systems need to be better equipped to enable the best science to flourish. This recommendation really aims to help bring focus to that aim.

How do you define scientific researchers for this purpose?

This agreement uses the classifications designed many decades ago for statistics in sciences, to define the scope of application. That includes the hard sciences, social sciences, applied and fundamental science in all fields including history and philosophy. Generally, a scientific researcher is anyone conducting research and development, no matter in what setting they work and no matter their employment status. It goes as far as to include some people who may not think of themselves as researchers, such as doctors who take part in clinical trials.

The Recommendation also – to a degree – applies to technicians and students assisting in research and other system stakeholders, like research funders and publishers.

What does the consultation exercise mean in practice – what’s being considered? 

Like other international regulations, the Recommendation has a monitoring exercise to review progress. What’s interesting is that this is the first such global agreement in science. The monitoring process starts this week, and will go on until the end of March 2021. Then it will happen every four years.

Of course, it’s hard to capture everything that’s going on in the science world, and so we’re focusing on ten key areas that are going to inform the way we design indicators and measurements to measure how well science systems are doing in the future. These areas include measures to enable science, such as levels of public investment, open access, how well scientific freedom and scientific responsibilities are respected, scientific integrity and ethics, and also how well science is introduced into government planning and decision-making. They also consider non-discrimination and diversity issues, to see how well a national science system is absorbing all the potential talent.

Are governments self-reporting across the ten areas? Do they have indicators that they should report against?

Common standards for all countries have just been set, which means that in the future we’ll see some commonality around how these things are measured.

This is the first time the monitoring has ever been done, and so there will be some variation while we figure out the best ways to measure these topics. There’s already been three years of discussion on how to measure openness in science. That’s one of the measurements that we’re trying to take, so this time there will not be a universal, single set of indicators that are recommended, but as part of the monitoring process we’re going to start asking everyone to use and comment on some indicators. We’re hoping that this will become a useful way of standardizing how governments’ measurements are taken across the entire system of science. Many of the results will be made available online.

Are there any knowledge gaps across the ten key areas? How will those gaps be addressed? 

We know that some of these areas are going to be hard to measure. Within the sciences we’ve been doing a lot of measurements about inputs and outputs – how many PhDs are awarded, how much public and private investment has been made, how many scientific articles have been published and patents awarded, and so on – but we might not be looking at all the right measures. These new standards consider questions of scientific freedom and responsibility, or open science, which is much harder to measure. We’re working with experts to develop proposals for this kind of measurement.

Are you expecting all countries to respond?

I’m expecting the response rate will be high, because it’s the first time this monitoring has been done, and because we already have data on science from most countries of the world. Most countries are very interested in how science and technology can contribute to development.

Might there be disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 has been surprisingly beneficial to this area of work, because it’s brought so much public attention to the necessity of having international research collaboration that works, as well as high standards for research quality and how it’s presented, so that other scientists can replicate and prove or disprove the research. The common standards included in the Recommendation are designed to help all scientists work on a level playing-field, which should help international collaborations.

Once you’ve got the reports, what happens next?

We’re working to develop national reports over the next few months so that everyone can contribute, including associations of scientists such as the members of the ISC. The national reports might show specific things that need to be changed, and there may be groups in the scientific community who want to speak out – now’s the time to start the discussion.

Later on, these reports will be discussed at both the national and the international level to look at whether we need new regulation. Each country is different, but at international level it appears the next big issue for common regulation is probably around open science, where there might be new regulation at the end of next year. That debate will take into account what these reports say.

Are the common standards, for example on scientific freedom, going to be enforced? Will UNESCO be holding member states to account?

I like to think of this in terms of accountability, and for national governments accountability really lies with its citizens. That’s what politics is about. When UNESCO brings together the representatives of member states, they are very cautious about criticising the activities of another member state, until it gets to the point of violating an international standard. 

Now that we have these international standards, if there are serious violations of issues like scientific freedom, including freedom of expression for scientists, there will be some examination, and we will probably see some interactions with the human rights framework. 

This Recommendation is an agreement that’s explicitly based on human rights, and the human rights framework has a very strong mechanism and a strong community of activists that work to keep accountability high on the agenda. When it comes to enforcement, the real need is for scientists themselves to understand what their rights are.

Many individual scientists may not be familiar with the recommendation, and may have differing ideas about what their rights and responsibilities are.

The responsibilities and rights are pretty clear and explicit in this document, so it may be immediately helpful to them. It is possible to bring petitions in cases of violations, even at an international level, and especially in relation human rights aspects. At UNESCO the procedure for individual petitions is called the 104 procedure. It’s held behind closed doors, but individual petitions are accepted and we would usually recommend that associations like the ISC participate on behalf of the person who has made a claim. 

Of course, most of the people affected by this kind of document will not be thinking about raising claims. However, the idea is to question the conditions for doing science, and to make improvements where necessary.

While the monitoring is going on, is there a role for individual scientists? How should they get involved?

Definitely. Most scientists do want to change things about the science system and a systems approach will  help achieve the best outcomes for science. I would encourage any scientists to fill in surveys, and if they don’t see any action at the national level, to encourage their associations to enquire. This year is a window for dialogue with governments before they assess. Later on, scientists and their associations may want to read the reports that governments provide, and perhaps advise again. They may want help governments consider any gaps or opportunities for change.  Social scientists who are competent to advise on the metrics are also well placed to advise governments on how and what to measure, helping make the new regulations more meaningful.

This policy process that governs research can seem very distant and abstract, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, every country has a Ministry that can be contacted, and many have also a UNESCO National Commission appointed to help at this interface. And at the international level, UNESCO’s staff will receive all of these reports and will be sharing them with the ISC, so that there is a feedback to science communities. The interaction between the ISC and UNESCO Member States has always been very precious, because there has to be a way that scientists can get involved in political processes, even at the global level when their interests are at stake.

The concerns of governments are sometimes very different to those of scientists, and the scientific community is so vast that it really requires some bigger associations to get involved in order to interpret how to make changes to a system. But every individual voice can get involved, and this is really the moment to get involved, especially before 31 March 2021 at national level.

Dr April Tash is a programme specialist within the Department of Social Sciences at UNESCO. Dr Tash guided the adoption of the revised Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers in 2017, and is the lead for the Recommendation within UNESCO.

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

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