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Diversifying the ownership of science – lessons from our 3rd community hangout


Picture credits: Takiwasi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kersti Ruth Wissenbach, June 2022

On May 19, 2022, GIG hosted the first out of five hangouts addressing pressing issues to enable inclusive, bottom-up Citizen Social Science practices in the most diverse contexts. The topics have been identified throughout a series of conversation formats with makers, citizen [social] scientists and activists worldwide. As we are heading towards a co-created publication aiming to capture the critical understanding of inclusive Citizen Social Science from a gloCal perspective, these hangouts also provide a space for questions and discussion around one of the topics each month.

This time we discussed the Ownership of Science with an inspiring group of participants from Kenya, Cameroon, Singapore, Brazil, and Spain. We wanted to investigate what role Citizen Social Science can or should play in bringing Science back to its "original owners".

The lively discussion departed from the observation that science is commonly perceived as a product of European academia. European thought, however, constitutes a massive gap in traditional knowledge. One fundamental difference is the approach to knowledge creation and processing. Participants from African and SEA contexts pointed out that the European academic system is driven mainly by competition. In contrast, other knowledge forms, science in other contexts, are not based on the comparison, resulting in different cultures of science.

Nonetheless, traditional approaches are usually compared with Western approaches. In SEA, e.g., with an upheld reference to the latter as ´real science´, we see that the validation of science relates to a dominating culture of practice rather than the roots of specific knowledge and the original practices thereof. Observations from Kenya and surrounding African countries stressed that these dynamics maintain the colonisation of science, which is still enforced in academic institutions. This includes decisions on what is funded, the remaining advantage to publishing in western journals to be accepted, and your research to be validated.

Another aspect of this validation culture, driven by comparison, relates to people´s publishing records. Measuring how often and where one is published reinforces the biased recognition of which methods are accepted. Change is underway as open access journals and alternative archives have entered the scenery, opening the competitive fortress of academic publishing races to ´count as a scientist. However, language, writing styles, accessibility of findings for those who should benefit on the ground, and awareness about and feeling of agency to contribute remain significant exclusion factors. Open-access journals resolve the remaining European idea of what is considered science alone.

Driving conversations gradually include more diverse voices, as seen in Open Science or Citizen Social Science contexts. However, fundamental questions concerning power dynamics should not happen in isolation but in different environments driven by academic and non-academic scientific communities. But here we run into the dilemma of recognising all these other actors as actual scientists to have an eye-level discourse.

Participants shared their experiences of increased civic involvement to increase inclusion in science. For instance, in Singapore, participatory design approaches to developing public spaces are increasingly becoming standard practice, seeking to make the outcomes more relevant to the people it intends to serve. Train stations have route planning signs and locality maps next to each station, which is currently being redesigned, including residents of the neighbourhoods. Whilst usually, such redesigns would be done by highly paid professionals, this process has now been opened up and co-designed. As a result, signs now mark the entry sides of each building, making things much easier for people in wheelchairs, for example. These practices are new to the Southeast Asian context. However, these practices are consultation based thus do not tackle the gaps mentioned above when it comes to shifting the ownership of science.

If we want to address the ownership of science and bring it back to its origins, we need to understand how to define science. If we see science as access to knowledge and understanding, we can better comprehend to whom science belongs. As expertise should not be tied down to particular groups, to the popular understanding of scientists, tearing down restrictions to access becomes a much more complex endeavour. Open access journals and involving citizens in research directly impacting their living environments can be seen as a first step, yet it instead invites in than shifting ownership. Finding ways to bring science back to its original owners becomes more manageable if we understand better why we know what we know and the origins of what we call science. The first enables us to seek evidence or explanations of what we observe around us, our living experiences, etc. The latter gives us an understanding of how things have been done before to explain the past to everything that happens.

For instance, visitors to Mboa lab in Cameroon who do not have science backgrounds show immense interest in their work in the lab. Understanding specific processes departs even from explaining the instruments used in the lab, such as light microscopes and how they work. Opening up barriers to scientific environments for direct civic learning constitutes one precondition to breaking with historically created power dynamics, thus, opening up science to more actors and gradually shifting ownership.

One approach is, therefore, the opening up of science, whilst another is to critically address the roots of knowledge and scientific practices to give recognition back to the original owners of these scientific practices and knowledge. But our conversation revealed various accounts of quite the contrary. Kenya has seen an active campaign against traditional medicine, arguing that being unable to predict precise doses causes dangers. The same observations came from Brazil, where authorities advised people not to take traditional medicine. Undoubtedly, the approaches to communicating about traditional medicine are different. For example, leaves on the street markets are sold with information on what they are for rather than their names. Adding information that specifies ways and doses of consumption would be a further step. In that sense, everything we do is science, but it surfaces once we have, or communicate, the method to systematize it. Without systemization, consumption can be harmful. A constructive approach, rather than forbidding, would be to collaborate with traditional practitioner communities to apply methods that specify the right ways and doses of consumption and enable the communities to sell their remedies in other markets.

If we perceive the systematization of practices as science, one driving question would be how we get people engaged in systematizing their practices. How do we adapt existing methods to what is made by local people and to local practices, rituals, and protocols? Engaging the owners of practices into systematization can also be seen as limiting or intruding ownership, as it somewhat presumes that people would want to systemize or that there is no other form of systematization in place that, yet again, does not suit the western idea of systematization. Overall, we need to come to terms with the fact that methodology also exists behind traditional practices, as to validation, robustness etc., as we can be sure that local communities would discontinue certain practices, such as the use of natural and traditional remedies, if they would not prove to be effective.

So what do all these observations leave us with? What role can or should Citizen Social Science play in bringing Science back to its "original owners"?

A critical question is if opening up science does have to mean diversifying, or let´s say re-diversifying, rather than seeking to broaden engagement within an existing scientific culture. We need to radically think beyond existing structures and imagine a future concept of science that consists of very different cultures of science, methodological schools, institutional and non-institutional conglomerates, and hybrids. This means we must come to terms with the methodology behind traditional practices such as validation, robustness, etc. We could be sure that local communities would discontinue certain practices, such as conventional remedies, if they were ineffective.

Perhaps  some crucial contributions *Citizen *Social Science can make are:

  • Embracing ownership of practices and acknowledging the owners of those practices as the leading scientists. 

Ideally, this would mean getting into a conversation that respects the local methodologies and those for the specific scientific process. Other methodological perspectives that could benefit specific purposes can be suggested but only enacted if invited. It would be about the systematisation of practices reaching places it has not reached before without appropriating them, such as identifying doses of certain traditional herbs. Doing so is about aggregating the value of different forms of already existing science, including those practices that are not recognised by western frameworks of science.

  • Actively contribute to a diversification of knowledge-sharing practices and formats.

Ownership should perhaps never become a practice of opening up a dominating western conceptualisation of science and adapting traditional practices to the existing model but embrace all different framings of science and leave it to the owners as to how they wish to share and open up. 

Advocating for the conditions to enable opening up on all these different scientific communities would become sth to strive for. Building on diversity can be seen as enforcing resilience! If we recognize the responsible individuals and communities, embracing their methodologies, languages, knowledge-sharing formats, etc., ownership can be claimed to have been established.

*Citizen *Social Science can become a driver to respect those practices and perhaps play an active role in supporting the creation and use of facilitating infrastructures, such as archiving, translations, a critical engagement with what participation and power mean in each collaborative process, and how to rigorously push for equal ownership opportunities for actors from diverse cultures of science in funding and programming schemes.