Opening Science

The physicist Jim Al-Khalili is the host of an excellent programme on the BBC, The Life Scientific. He interviews a scientist about their life and work in science. In a recent episode the guest was Corinne Le Quéré, Head of the Global Carbon Project.

She spoke about her work, which contributes to meeting one of the grand challenges we face. One aspect that seems to recur in these programmes is the effect of interacting with the public. Euroscientist has excellent accounts of the way this can act as education for the public. Le Quéré also talked about the benefits for science through interacting with the public. In explaining our science we develop our thinking on science. Through such communication we come to know our science better and differently. It shows the benefits of opening science out to all.

At European Union level, there is excellent work on responsible Research and Innovation. In 2015 Commissioner Moedas identified three strategic priorities, described in Open innovation, Open science, Open to the world (the 3 Os strategy). He proposed that “many more actors will take part [in the research process] in different ways and the traditional methods of organising and rewarding research will also see many changes”

Euroscientist has done valuable work in showing ways that scientific papers can be made open access. However, I think we need to think about a wider concept of open access. Scientific papers are carefully written so that the meanings are very clearly defined and the outcomes carefully framed so as not to go beyond the data. I can read such papers in my field but need help from colleagues when reading papers in neighbouring fields. In other areas the papers are impenetrable to me as I do not speak their language. I think we need to expand open access to mean not just available as scientific papers but as papers that we can all understand. The Life Scientific has plenty of examples of the value to science of doing such work, even though some argue it counts little for developing one’s science career. However, consider the following example.

Science education is one of the thematic elements of the Open approach a way to meet the grand challenges we face. In this field, Black and Wiliam (1998) did a systematic review of the impact of assessment on learning. Their paper showed the powerful effect that good feedback can have on learning. They wrote a very well referenced paper for the community of researchers, currently cited more than 10 000 times, according to scholar.google.co.uk. They also wrote material for other audiences. Inside the Black Box (2005), written for teachers, summarised their work and its implications for practice. This booklet has had a wide impact on teachers’ practice and students’ learning around the world. According to Scholar.Google this booklet has been cited over 7000 times. The booklet is written in a style and register appropriate for its audience. It has been used to improve the learning of many students, to change the minds of people about what counts as learning and how we can support learning. It shows that opening up their science in appropriate languages for different audiences benefits many communities of practice. Feedback from those communities has developed the research field and so moved the field along.

Such opening up science to wider communities of practice benefits everybody. It is a two way process. Widening the scope of Open Science helps develop science as well as educating the public. Most communities cannot speak the specialist languages of science. However, scientists can speak the language of their specialism and also the language of the communities where they live. This puts an onus on the scientists to learn to translate their scientific papers from scientific to everyday language, as an essential first step in creating truly accessible Open Science. Many of us will have to learn to do such translation to make Open Science accessible to fellow citizens. As Le Quéré showed, such translation develops our thinking and our field.

Recent work on the COVID 19 outbreak and its consequences gives potent examples of scientists translating their work for different communities, gaining feedback and developing thinking (E.g. Spector 2020). Publicly funded scientists should translate their work for different audiences as a way to educate fellow citizens and enable citizens to contribute to developing science and their communities. Then we will truly have Responsible Research and Innovation, accessible Open Science and citizens able to meet the challenges we face.

Written by Charly Ryan

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