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Some big questions for science

08 October 2020

Matjaz Slanic/iStock

As researchers around the globe race to understand, treat and eliminate COVID-19, we have all been reminded of the importance of science—not only to our ability to make sense of the world, but to our very survival.

Though science is the art of inquiry, a series of papers from the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) turn the tables and ask some big questions about science itself:

  1. What is science?

  2. Who is it for?

  3. Who should it be by?

  4. Who is it with?

  5. How do we understand how ‘good’ scientific research is?

What is science?

UNESCO’s 2017 Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers offers a definition. It describes science as a way through which we try to:

  • discover and master causalities, relations or interactions
  • connect clusters of knowledge through systematic reflection and conceptualization
  • understand the processes and phenomena that occur in nature and society

In this context, ‘science’ is a very open, flexible term that encompasses knowledge in multiple forms regardless of academic discipline, or background.

Who is science for?

As a human right, science should be for everyone. In fact, every person’s right to access scientific knowledge and to participate in its development was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. UNESCO works hard to make this right into a reality by facilitating and promoting Open Science. Open Science is a movement to:

  • make research accessible to anyone interested in it
  • share science transparently through collaborative networks
  • make it easier for everyone to benefit from scientific research

UNESCO’s efforts to develop a Recommendation on Open Science recognize the value of science as a common good. It’s clear that as a cornerstone of our progress toward prosperity, social justice and respect for the planet, science is for everyone.

Budd Hall, UNESCO co-chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, backs up these ideas. In various papers, he has argued that to be truly open, science should be performed with and for communities. Openness also enables citizens around the world to contribute to science through citizen science or participatory action research projects.

Who is science by?

UNESCO’s 2017 recommendation defined scientific researchers as those who engage in research and development. Hall and colleagues contend that science should go beyond traditional researchers and institutions to encompass multiple knowledges and systems of thought, including those of Indigenous Peoples, minorities and cultures from the Global South.

The authors of a 2019 research paper prepared for CCUNESCO (“Is Science a Human Right?”) support these ideas, emphasizing the “urgent need to expand the boundaries of the scientific community to ensure that it more accurately reflects the pluralistic composition of society,” particularly women and members of the LGBTQ2 community.

And in CCUNESCO’s newest paper, authors from the Canadian Science Fair Journal argue that youth scientists deserve greater recognition for their contributions to place-based, solution-oriented scientific inquiry. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council recognizes this and encourages youth to be active in the field of science at a young age by organizing Science Literacy Week and projects such as Little Inventors.

In other words, science should be “by” everyone who wants to participate—and the scientific research ecosystem should welcome all inquiring minds.

Finally, who is science with?

Simply put: Science is with the same people it is for and by. Hall and colleagues argue that to be truly open, science must be “based on values of co-operation, sharing, friendship, compassion, understanding and refusal to separate personal life and values from research.”

When research concerns Indigenous People, this means researchers should adopt a collaborative approach. In fact, Élisabeth Kaine, co-Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Transmission among First Peoples as a Dynamic of Well-Being and Empowerment, recommends measuring the quality of Indigenous research in terms of researchers’ ability to work withby and for First Peoples.

In Pursuing Excellence in Research, the UNESCO Chairs in Canada emphasize the need to recognize the impact of research on communities, including how research may influence capacity building and leadership and contribute to public knowledge.

What all of this means is that science today must not only be a collective endeavor for, by and with all people, but that the quality of any research should also be assessed by how accessible it is to all.

Ultimately, the pandemic is proving and driving the need for open access to scientific know-how and data-sharing. As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, it’s clear that only a multi-dimensional approach will enable us to put this crisis behind us. That means involving not only researchers, but decision- and policy makers, industries, health professionals and all of civil society.

  • Tag Sciences
  • Tag Research
  • Tag Traditional knowledge