The future of science lies in collaboration – and other findings from ESOF 2016

21st-century science should bring together researchers, data and the public

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A few years ago, Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier, a researcher in microbiology, genetics and biochemistry, and her team discovered CRISPR-cas9, a microbial adaptive immune system that can be developed into a tool to edit genes that could eventually fight virus diseases in humans.

Such a technology has the potential to change the world. However, as Voltaire (and later a certain spiderlike superhero) supposedly once said: with great power comes great responsibility. How can you ensure that such discoveries are only used to the benefit of mankind? Who decides how it will be applied? And how do you communicate something so complex to the public?

These and other questions were addressed at the 2016 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Manchester, UK, which brought together scientists, policymakers, science communicators and business leaders from 83 countries to exchange thoughts and ideas about science and innovation.

In a keynote speech, Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, noted:

In the 21st century, science can no longer be distant to the public. It requires public support to succeed. I think of it in terms of a triangle between the public, scientists and data, with the public firmly at the center.

I will use these three key elements to explain my personal highlights of the conference.

Broadening the researcher population

The success of future research will depend in part on the diversity of the academic landscape. Various sessions at ESOF aimed to equip the many early-career researchers present with the tools they need to succeed in academia. The European Young Researchers’ Award, which this year was shared by Dr. Marta Entradas and Dr. Martijn Wieling, celebrated outstanding research performance and leadership to inspire early stage researchers to incorporate a European dimension and perspective into their research.

But early-career researchers aren’t the only ones who can add a new voice to academia. Women, who have been historically underrepresented in many scientific fields, also provide new potential and insights. As a result, research into the barriers and obstacles faced by female scientists needs to continue. At ESOF, there were many successful female academics to inspire the younger generations: Dame Nancy Rothwell, physiologist and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester; Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard; and of course professor Charpentier.

Dealing with data

Physics Professor Brian Cox speaks during the opening ceremony. (Photos by Elisa Nelissen)

New technologies enable us to do research on an increasingly large scale. During the opening ceremony, physics professor Brian Cox of the University of Manchester, who hosts the popular science series “Forces of Nature” on the BBC, took us on a virtual trip around the world to visit the offices and building sites of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the largest, most powerful radio telescope in the world. Scientists working on the SKA explained that the telescope would produce unsurpassed amounts of data, and that we will need new tools to be able to process it all.

And it’s not just research data that causes concern. From conversations we had with academics about the challenges they face, it quickly became clear that dealing with data is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Academics are under constant pressure to keep up with the latest developments in their fields and publish new papers to stay competitive and get funding. Additionally, they also have to contribute to peer review, teach, apply for grants, and so on. To be able to keep their sanity, researchers need to find ways to process all this information, whether analyzing results, writing a literature review or tackling their email inbox.

As a result, various sessions were devoted to new innovations for peer review, university rankings, metrics and article publishing. At the core of these discussions was a term that keeps recurring in discussions about academia: “open science.” Sometimes alternated with “science 2.0,” inspired by the social use of web technology, the term reflects the desire of researchers to use technology to fundamentally address some of these challenges associated with the changing world of research. It also implies sharing and collaboration, at every stage of the research process. And even though it will be difficult, if not impossible, to completely overturn the system of academic publishing, radical ideas can inspire more achievable changes. This is why discussions with a very varied audience, such as those at ESOF, are so fruitful.

Engaging the public

In today’s interconnected world, research is not just shared with other researchers but also with the public. This is good, as now more than ever we need to engage the public about science. Low reproducibility, miscommunications and the perceived distance between science and society have caused people to distrust science. As Commissioner Moedas said: “Science can no longer be distant to the public. It requires public support to succeed. I think of it in terms of a triangle between the public, scientists and data, with the public firmly at the center.”

As Elsevier’s press officer, this is my personal hobby horse – one with endless possibilities but also plenty of challenges.

I’ll share one example that makes this particularly clear. In an interactive session about the role of cities in communicating science to citizens, we discussed the challenges in bringing science to disadvantaged communities. There were geographical issues, such as making sure those groups that don’t generally visit city centers were also reached. There were language issues when dealing with people with international backgrounds who aren't native speakers of the local language. And there were socio-economic issues, which may lead to a decreased amount of “headspace” to even consider science and science education.

If we take Moedas’ vision at heart, we need to continue to think about new ways to reignite people’s passion for science. Elsevier already contributes to citizen science and science communication in many ways. For example, journalists can get free access to research published in our journals, we participate in the Wikipedia Library Project that provides Wikipedia editors with access to over 2,500 journals, 900 serials and 26,000 book titles. The Atlas blog showcases research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world or has already done so. Elsevier also sponsors the popular Pint of Science festival and Science&People events, and Sense About Science’s Ask for Evidence campaign.  

If those three items – scientists, data and the public – are well-combined, the opportunities for new and impactful projects are endless. I, for one, am looking forward to building on the work of my colleagues and seeing how the research landscape will develop in the years to come. And I’m sure we’ll continue these discussions at the next ESOF, 2018 in Toulouse.

ESOF 2016 was the seventh edition of the biannual science conference, which this year took place in Manchester, a city with a rich history in science and innovation, and the 2016 European City of Science.

Elsevier is an avid supporter of ESOF. This year, Elsevier colleagues contributed to 17 sessions; co-organizing the following discussions:

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