‘Open science is an accelerator for SDGs’: Ana Persic, UNESCO

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization logo is pictured on the entrance at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, October 2016. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

UNESCO, the United Nations’ scientific and cultural agency, has finalised a document calling for a new global framework for sharing scientific knowledge openly. Representatives from over 100 member states approved the draft text of UNESCO’s recommendation on open science, which aims to harmonise the meaning, challenges and opportunities of open science across nations.

The crucial step, taken at the end of a week-long intergovernmental meeting, is the culmination of more than a year’s work involving consultations and meetings with groups including researchers, policymakers, publishers, and indigenous communities. The recommendation will now be presented at the agency’s general conference in November for the 193 member states to adopt.

Open science encapsulates a variety of areas in the practice of research. The term has its origins in the “open access” movement that emerged in the 1990s to provide free access to scientific literature to everyone, without requiring journal subscriptions. Today it also includes the sharing of research data under open licences and the use of open-source software and open hardware in conducting research, and extends to the role of citizen science and participatory research practices. Open science has gained wider interest in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with journals providing free access to relevant papers, and with high-level discussions around intellectual property rights and vaccine patent waivers.

“Interest in open science has expanded beyond the scientific communities of the world to other actors in science, technology and innovation broadly,” said Dr Ana Persic, chief ad interim of UNESCO’s section on science policy and partnerships, in an interview with Geneva Solutions.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of initiatives in different countries and regions. In February this year, the University of Geneva (UNIGE) adopted a charter for open science, committing to provide free access to research data and results from its researchers. Also this year, the European Commission’s new open-access publishing platform, Open Research Europe, accepted its first scientific publications. However, according to Persic, there has not been a common understanding of – or an international framework defining – open science and its actors.

To address this, UNESCO held its first discussions on the subject of open science two years ago, in April 2019. The following November at the general conference, the member states asked UNESCO to formally embark on preparing a recommendation for open science.

From the outset the member states wanted to ensure that the establishment of a new international norm was just and could help bridge gaps in science, technology and innovation across countries. The requirements were clear: in the drafting of the recommendations, UNESCO would consult representatives from all regions and include academic researchers, librarians and archivists involved in open access and open data, publishers, those developing open hardware and open software, citizen scientists, and representatives of indigenous people practising traditional forms of knowledge production.

Involving diverse stakeholders enabled the meeting participants to settle on, among other things, a definition of open science in the recommendation:

“[…] an inclusive construct that combines various movements and practices aiming to make scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone, to increase scientific collaborations and sharing of information for the benefits of science and society, and to open the processes of scientific knowledge creation, evaluation and communication to societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community.”

“What is really important with this framework is it stresses certain core values and core principles,” elaborates Persic. “How do we make sure that those who are less advantaged can benefit from open science?” Given the fact that mere access to the products of scientific research requires connectivity and infrastructure, the document places an emphasis on equity and justice, and on international solidarity and cooperation. “The way we see open science,” she continues, “is as an accelerator for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

According to Persic, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated to everyone the importance of open science in addressing common issues: “If you work with open science in mind, then you share and collaborate, and you come to something together.” But it is crucial to keep the momentum going; a system has to be put in place, she asserts, to maintain this cultural shift. “The UNESCO recommendation takes the long-term view on open science and tries to say to countries that something like this has to happen beyond crises.”

Indeed, changing how science is practised cannot happen overnight, and policy makers and universities are aware that it is a long process. “For us at UNIGE,” Dr Danielle Bütschi, senior adviser to the university rectorate, tells Geneva Solutions, “open science is a way of cultural change for how science is done in daily life, how you share your data and publish your results. Some scientists think it’s too complicated or they’re uncomfortable sharing things that others can use as they want, but with new generations of researchers it becomes easier.”

UNIGE’s charter and UNESCO’s recommendation are, however, not legally binding, and both UNIGE researchers and UNESCO member states are free to ignore the respective documents. But there is intrinsic value in something that is seen as merely symbolic, stresses Bütschi: “We also have charters for research integrity and for ethical research. The charter for open science is a commitment from the side of the university to provide conditions that ensure that open science happens and we expect our researchers to adopt open science practices where possible.”

The UNESCO recommendation has to pass the key hurdle in November – adoption by the general conference. That will merely be the beginning, though. “Then comes the implementation phase,” notes Dr Persic, “and we have to define a monitoring framework for the counties to report on.” She is however optimistic about the future of open science: “Change happens little by little. I remain positive that it will be a new way of doing things.”