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

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

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 from around the world. 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 unpack the question of 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 to 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 largely driven by competition whereas other knowledge forms, science in other contexts, are not based on 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 certain 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 publish in western journals in order to be accepted and your research to be validated.

Another aspect of this validation culture, driven by comparison, relates to people´s publishing records. Being measured by how often and where one is published reinforces the biassed 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 in order to ´count as a scientist´. However, language, writing styles, accessibility of findings for those people who should benefit on the ground, and awareness about and feeling of agency to contribute remain major factors of exclusion. Open access journals neither resolve the remaining European idea of what is considered science alone.

Driving conversations gradually include more diverse voices, such as seen in Open Science or Citizen Social Science contexts. However, fundamental questions in regard to 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 same dilemma of needing to recognise all these different actors as actual scientists to have an eye level discourse.

Participants shared their own experiences of increased civic involvement in order to increase inclusion in science. For instance, in Singapore, participatory design approaches to the development of public spaces are increasingly becoming common practice, seeking to make the outcomes more relevant to people it intends to serve. Train stations have route planning signs and locality maps next to each station, which are currently 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 above mentioned gaps when it comes to shifting the ownership of science.

If we want to address the issue of ownership of science and how to 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 whom science belongs to. As knowledge 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 rather invites in than shifting ownership. Finding ways to bring science back to its original owners becomes easier if we have a better understanding about why we know what we know and about the origins of what we call science. The first enables us to seek for 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 in order to be able 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 the work they are doing in the lab. Understanding certain processes departs even from explaining the instruments, such as light microscopes, used in the lab and how they work. Opening up barriers to scientific environments for direct civic learning constitutes one precondition to break with historically created power dynamics, thus, to open up science to more actors and gradually shift ownership.

One approach is therefore the opening up of science, whilst another is to critically address the roots of knowledge and scientific practices, so as 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 not being able to predict precise doses cause dangers. Same observations came from Brazil, where authorities advised people not to take traditional medicine. Surely, the approaches to communicate about traditional medicines are different, for example leaves on the street markets are sold by 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 in order to systematize it. Without systemization consumption can be harmful. A constructive approach, rather than forbidding, would for instance be to collaborate with traditional practitioner communities in order to apply methods that allow to specify the right ways and doses of consumption and enable the communities to sell their remedies in further markets.

If we perceive the systematization of practices as science one driving question would be how we get people engaged into systematizing their practices and how do we adapt existing methods to what is made by local people, adapt to local practices, rituals, 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 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 to ask 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 but imagine a future concept of science that consists of very different cultures of science, methodological schools, institutional and non-institutional conglomerates, as well as hybrids. This means that we need to come to terms with, that methodology also exists behind traditional practices, as to validation, robustness etc. We can be sure that local communities would discontinue certain practices, such as the use of traditional remedies, if they would not prove to be effective.

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. 

This would ideally mean to get into a conversation that respects the local methodologies and respect those for the specific scientific process. Other methodological perspectives that could benefit specific purposes can be suggested but only enacted if invited in. It would be about systematisation of practices reaching places it has not reached before without appropriating them, such as the example of 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 framings 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 to 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 then rather become sth to strive for. Building on diversity can be seen as enforcing resilience! If we manage to recognize the individuals and communities that are responsible, 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.

picture credits: Takiwasi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons