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Dispatch from the United Nations 2nd Open Science Conference

graphic for UN 2nd Open Science Conference

In July I attended the virtual Open Science Conference hosted by the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Library; the program and other details are on the UN Library’s website. Reflecting on the event from my at-home office in Raleigh, North Carolina, I was struck by the scope and scale of the event, its significance in this moment, and the potential I observed in where we go from here.

*I will be relying on the UNESCO open science definition throughout, which includes the typical practices like open publishing, open data, is multidisciplinary, and addresses necessary cultural and behavioral change in incentives and evaluation of research outputs. Unhelpful as it may be, “open science” is quickly coming to mean all the things in the wheelhouse of the digital transformation of academic research.

Scope and Scale

It’s impossible now to talk about the future of knowledge production without an atmospheric point of view. The conference theme focused on climate change and our shared human experience of a global pandemic, and reiterated what we’ve all known that is crystal clear after the past 16 months—cooperation and coordination that supersedes all barriers is our only path forward. Honestly, it’s exhausting to imagine and obviously will be challenging to attempt.

The fact that this topic—open science—is a talking point in multinational bodies like the United Nations, UNESCO, the OECD, and the EU was underscored in the first few panels focusing on the policy landscape. In the US context, it was refreshing to hear from Jerry Sheehan, assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), that open science is on the mind of the OSTP/Biden administration. Knowing that policy development and change is a long-term, iterative process, I do find it curious that there still doesn’t feel to be a center of gravity in the US for advancing open science.

We (the research library community) pinned lots of hope, resources, and people on the trickle down effects of the Holdren public access memo from 2013, and are still slowly marching forward with that hope. There is clear momentum across the sector toward a more open research environment, and it appears that “scientific integrity” and “societal impact” will be the US-flavored open science lingua franca for the next three years at least. My tone of my work then continues to be encapsulated in a nice alliterative model that I’m calling OS4A (open science for action):

  1. remaining aware at the mega level (IGOs);
  2. advocating at the macro level (responding to OSTP RFIs until the breakadawn);
  3. advancing discussions at the meso level (disciplinary/field); and
  4. activating communities at the micro level (state, local, university).

Significance

I had the pleasure of completing a training in Community Engagement Fundamentals from the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement’s (CSCCE) just prior to the UN Open Science event. Aside from the cohort-based learning experience, the CSCCE runs a Slack team where former trainees can gather, share ideas, and discuss the work of community development and engagement that is becoming more central to research. Not coincidentally, there was a cadre of folks who were also tuned in to the UN meeting, and the back channel was rich and enlightening.

There is obvious interest and excitement for open science from the academic-adjacent community, including those of us working in universities, professional academic societies, or publishing. As we discussed the meeting (aside from complaining about Microsoft Teams), I would say that there is general consensus that evolution is imminent in four areas: training, incentives, rewards, and equity.

Esther Plomp, data steward at University of Technology (TU Delft), summarized:

Institutions really need to start to walk the talk: if there’s no motivation in terms of career rewards we only get the very enthusiastic people who are doing things. We need the majority now!

Dylan Roskams-Edris, open science alliance officer at the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute, raised a humbling point of those of us conversing within the CSCCE Slack team:

Many of us aren’t actually practitioners of open science (at least as researchers) but we are reasonably like-minded, semi-experts interested in discussing it in a free-flowing and mildly moderated way.

Emily Lescak, senior research community officer for the Wikimedia Foundation, underlined the role of other actors:

Funding agencies need to prioritize open work in grant application review and institutions need to prioritize it when deciding on hires and promotion and tenure. I think universities should also provide training opportunities for students, faculty, and staff in open practices.

The feeling of camaraderie across disciplines, roles, and specialities within the CSCCE discussion thread is encouraging. My overall takeaway from the conference was that while I didn’t hear anything particularly new, more people are saying more of the same things, with more clarity, from many more corners of this sector. Leading up to the expected approval of the UNESCO Open Science recommendation in November, this late summer moment held significance as one more point of confluence along the open path (maybe even tied in my experience with OpenCon16 in Berlin).

Next Things

Another thread in the CSCCE team was discussing governance models for communities, and took a dive into the differences between consensus and consent-based decision-making. Borrowing liberally from a model I’ve only skimmed, I’d estimate that the next 12–18 months in open science advocacy will be more loudly and commonly characterized by asking not “do you agree?” but rather “do you object? If not, let’s move ahead.”

The questions that remain are not of the “what” variety—I’ve specced some of that out above. Who takes what responsibility and in which order seems to be the hang-up; the finger pointing between funders, policy-makers, researchers, senior administrations at universities, and professional societies is reaching a fever pitch. My intent from my vantage point is to take responsibility whenever unclaimed and also push it off where authority is clear. You need training in reproducibility? I can coordinate that for you. Want to collaborate to draft hiring and tenure guidelines that validate open software or preprints? I’ve got that in my back pocket already, but obviously can’t implement the policy.

I think my OS4A model (aware:advocate:advance:activate) will hold up well for stakeholders from different vantage points. And, if we’re all doing this in good faith, efficiently, from similar core principles, I expect that my work advancing an open science agenda with leaders in research libraries will meet similar work in hydrologyeducationneuroscience, and other disciplines. Quoting a colleague I have such respect for:

Open science can contribute to equity, if it enables people who are historically marginalized to learn about and research topics important to them and their communities, and have their research recognized and rewarded, and have that translate in impact for their communities…[if] we design open science carefully.

—Natalia Norori at the UN Open Science Conference [PDF]

That form of open science by design, of/by/for/with communities, validated, and translated accessibly and directly into social impact, is where I’d love to be a year from now. Onward.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Medium on July 29, 2021. The author, Micah Vandegrift, is an ARL visiting program officer designing and delivering a pilot experience—Accelerating the Social Impact of Research (ASIR)—for a cohort of nine ARL member libraries advancing open research practices at their institutions.

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