Hello! The first post here is actually an old one I wrote for our institute's in-house newsletter, but I think it is still quite relevant.
Here is the relevant link for this effort among Switzerland's scientists: https://naturalsciences.ch/topics/wescientists
Congress: We Scientists Shape Science
26-27 January 2017, Bern
In January I had the pleasure of attending the congress hosted by the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) entitled “We Scientists Shape Science”. Also in attendance from the DBM were Professor Ed Palmer and Nivedya Swarnalekha. The premise of the congress was that it isn’t enough for science to move faster - the endeavor should also improve qualitatively. According to the call for participants, the organizers “want science to be creative, solid, open, helpful for society and a good career opportunity for talented youth.” And as the title indicates, if we want to see changes in how science is done, then we have to do it ourselves. The intended results of the congress were concrete actions that can begin to address some of the challenges. Institutional stakeholders were also present to observe, offer their feedback, and hopefully, commit to taking relevant action.
In his opening statements, SCNAT President, Professor Marcel Tanner, admitted that even in Switzerland, science has problems. However, he cautioned against jumping too quickly to the conclusion that all the problems lie with the funding agencies or publishing houses. Throughout the event, he returned to this call to action: what are we as individuals willing to do? He emboldened the participants to make the two-day conference a “space for creative ideas” where the variety of perspectives from different disciplines would be a strength rather than a hurdle.
Dr. Karim Bschir, a philosopher of science, challenged the audience with three interrelated theses: How much room for improvement is there in Swiss science, actually, and what are we willing to do to achieve these perhaps marginal gains? Secondly, he asked us to always consider the aspect of risk - what are the risks (and to whom) of changing the status quo? Finally he pointed out that practically speaking, we must ultimately determine which individual or institutional actors are willing to take these risks.
On the first day of the congress, we were tasked with determining the challenges in our respective areas of focus: Time for Research, Space for Creativity, Scientific Career, Scientific Practice, Open Science, and Science in Society. These topics reveal the areas where the Academy sees the need and potential for improvement. The second day saw participants seeking concrete proposals to begin to address these challenges.
Although the conclusions reached by the six working groups have been published (http://www.naturalsciences.ch/wescientists), a brief description of each follows.
Noteworthy Stakeholder Reactions
Discussion - openness as end and means
I would like to make the claim that openness is the perfect metaphor for this conference’s mission. On the one hand, this is not a particularly original or amazing insight, considering one of the workshop topics was “Open Science”. However, I would submit that openness is not only a goal but also, in a broader sense, an instrument for meeting the challenges.
It’s fairly intuitive to interpret the challenges presented at the conference using the concept of openness, and this interpretation leads naturally to some avenues for concrete action. Time (for Research) and Space (for Creativity) are about creating temporal and spatial potential - nothing at all can happen without this open, empty state.
Openness to other career paths is a sensible response if the percentage of PhD candidates who go on to find stable professorships is too low. On the part of mentors and administrators, initiating an open and honest dialogue about the issue is a crucial first step.
Several challenges that spanned multiple topics revolved around risk, particularly the risk to young scientists of moving into a new field or making, as an individual or a research institution, a principled decision to publish in and support open access journals. How can this kind of openness to risk be acknowledged and rewarded?
Another important manifestation of openness is generosity - how can the ever more competitive character of science be tempered by a collegial culture based on sharing one’s time, data and ideas in the service of a public good?
Finally, the practice of science itself is based on openness: science is about observing what happens. But creative science also flows from the inner child, a sense of joy and wonder at the world, an open “beginner's mind” rather than one blinded by presuppositions.
In my view, science itself needs to be cracked open and shared, not only through easier access to publicly funded data and publications and better communication between scientists and society, but also as a fundamental aspect of humanity. Scientific thought is not something achievable only by a few; it is a part of being human. But the natural scientific mind that finds wonder in the world must be nurtured throughout the whole education process, the flame of curiosity carefully fed.
Expanding the participation in science in this way is clearly a long-term goal, but it may be a helpful way to develop a healthy dialogue between scientists and the public. No question: researchers absolutely need to be able to communicate their work to non-scientists - one stakeholder wished never again to hear from a scientist who’s asked to explain their work that “it’s too complicated”. Effectively reaching all different kinds of audience is part of a scientist’s job. But by showing everyone from a young age that they too are in some sense naturally scientists, a science-society bridge can be built from both sides.
A rational approach to finding practical solutions to these challenges would be to apply scientific ways of thinking more often to the “non-scientific” hurdles we see on our path. If iterative processes of observation and creative criticism were applied by individuals at all relevant levels of action, we would likely go a long way toward addressing the challenges raised at the congress. The more that individual scientists and institutional actors are willing to observe and assess their own presuppositions and conduct, the sooner we will open together the space in which science, in the service of society, can flourish.