Why decolonising science will give it greater impact

For decades modern scientific research has been controlled and directed by a small group of scientists and policy-makers, mostly white men from the Global North.

Traditionally, developments in the science world have scarcely been a part of the public discourse and remain ‘a thing for the scientists’ to deal with. With COVID-19, scientific research and development has entered public debate on questions related to the virus and vaccines. However, the global movement advocating for ‘open science’ asks for science to be a part of our everyday lives permanently, not just during the pandemic.

It also promotes the broader principle of making all research accessible and equitable, including social research. This extends to creating equitable knowledge systems that respect and include voices regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Open science is based on a fundamental principle – that scientific research can and should be produced and understood by anyone and everyone. It must not be restricted to the domain of a few scientists.

Scientific hegemony has stagnated intellectual advancement; scientific solutions for regions in the Global South are deliberated in the Global North, without taking into account voices from the affected regions. Traditional practices are treated as inaccurate and indigenous knowledge systems are delegitimised.

This has led to a knowledge vacuum and reinforced systemic and patriarchal inequalities in society. This idea has been echoed in the paper, Open Science Beyond Open Access: For and with communities, as part of the global initiative by UNESCO on open science.

Higher education institutions play a vital role in making scientific research more open to other forms of knowledge. They are the hubs of knowledge production and dissemination. How this knowledge is produced, whose voice it includes, how it is shared and with whom it is shared are factors directly under the control of these institutions.

The majority of educational institutions encourage a competitive knowledge ecosystem. They facilitate a system in which knowledge produced by them is their possession, which supposedly gives them a right over its use. Right from the stage of data collection and analysis to the stage of publication, knowledge is colonised by its ‘owners’. Universities offer ‘exclusive’ access to databases, giving them an edge over other institutions.

Access to research and data has been minimised with the rise of pay-to-publish trends that exclude voices from the most vulnerable sections of society. The gender-citation gap has increased, with less women researchers being cited, even in fields dominated by women.

Peer-reviewed journals are governed mostly by men in the Global North who speak English, with narrow world views, minimal diversity and limited openness to other forms of knowledge resulting.

The ‘Western canons of science’, namely modern science labs, have devalued indigenous knowledge systems and scientific practices related to agriculture, water and medicine, among others.

Universities as drivers of open science

Given the rather insulated knowledge ecosystem existing globally, higher education institutions must act as ‘knowledge contributors’ instead of ‘knowledge owners’.

Universities must conduct scientific research in a participatory manner to ensure that it is sustainable. Individuals from local communities whose ideas and knowledge are included in the research must play an active part in shaping that research.

Researchers must understand that scientific research is not just ‘for’ these communities, it is ‘by’ them. Knowledge thus needs to be co-constructed with community stakeholders. This makes them active agents of research rather than passive receivers of knowledge.

There is a need to recognise knowledge-sharing systems from the Global South to the Global North. Exploring local solutions in local languages created by marginalised communities and recognising the legitimacy of such knowledge is significant.

For instance, Ayurveda – an Indian medicine system – must be assessed on the same footing as modern scientific practices.

Similarly, Indigenous scientific research must not be required to conform to European scientific norms to prove its legitimacy.

Western scholars and scientists need to understand that marginalised communities are usually more resilient and more able to find solutions for problems which affect them than scientists sitting in another part of the world, ignorant of the local context of these communities.

Higher education institutions can create university partnerships, especially the poorer ones, to share their databases. Universities with bigger, richer libraries can share them with smaller universities.

University journals must be governed by a diverse range of individuals who are open to different ideas and forms of knowledge.

Open access platforms must be popularised by universities.

Knowledge must be seen as a public good, an idea reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 4 which holds universities responsible for ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all.

Universities in the Global South must establish regional peer-reviewed journals and publish more material in vernacular languages. They must establish their own norms and standards for conducting scientific research. Methods and tools for scientific research must counter biases based on gender, race, language and other differences. Citation formats should be made as neutral as possible. Scientific research should be accepted from different regions and socio-cultural contexts.

Finally, reducing the digital divide in the COVID-19 context is extremely important to reduce inequalities in accessing scientific research. Translations must be available for all kinds of scientific research, using emerging technologies. Some universities have begun to provide free data in college campuses for students who cannot afford it and would miss out on online classes as a result; such practices can be replicated elsewhere.

Science in everyday life?

The open science approach to knowledge creation, analysis and use is a step towards allowing science to be part of our daily lives. It will create a transparent, inclusive, equitable and participatory learning environment so that everyone can have a say in scientific developments that affect us all.

Open science will decolonise knowledge and bring excluded communities and forms of knowledge to the forefront. This will authenticate research, challenge age-old stereotypes and outdated ideas and provide fresh ones.

Science will no longer be distant and available to the privileged few; it will be real and open for us all to shape together.

Niharika Kaul is programme officer at PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia).