We are in the middle of a new political dynamic here in the US – one that has been building for over a decade. This new dynamic has meant that science and scientists are being viewed with a level of distrust – and even, at times, hostility – that is unprecedented in modern times, even as the advanced technologies that scientists create become more and more intertwined with everyday life. In this post, I suggest that while Open Access (OA) does democratize science to some extent, certainly for those who can understand the content, in isolation it is not enough and other actions should be considered.
There is an inexorable and healthy move towards open science, global scientific collaborations, and important advances that depend upon this openness – such as the development of vaccines with new mRNA delivery models, and the role of CRISPR and its extension to focused gene editing in potential treatment of some of our most pernicious diseases – advances that are squarely a product of global and public and private collaborations. So, clearly openness generally is a good thing, allowing the research ecosystem to flourish. But, in our rush to prioritize Open Access, have we left the world behind? Do we need to consider how to not just make information available, but how to democratize science and technology? How do we communicate an understanding of how science works, and what science may do for you in your life as a voter, a family member, a caregiver, and toward your ability to earn a living?
It is worth considering how we may have reached this point – a point where the scientific community is comfortable in its own elitist framework. The first place to look is in the political frame — a frame where liberalism has more or less defeated less democratic ideologies, but in its wake has left a distrustful and frustrated population. Think about the examples provided above. To the general public, “gene editing” has an ominous ring, and promises that such editing might be a boon to public health evoke only suspicion.
For now, the forces of moderation are in power, but there is an inescapable sense that democracy is no longer a given, and that significant swathes of the population are disillusioned with our political system. It is clearly happening here in the US, and indeed in the UK and beyond. I am sure I am not alone in asking why this is happening, and how could it possibly be that people in large numbers are turning away from substance to a more conspiratorial view that binds individuals together as a group that sees hope in conspiracy theories not constrained by evidence and fact. None of this is new. A wonderful and thought provoking book that I am currently enjoying, is entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari begins his “lessons” by tackling some of these issues, not providing answers, but a narrative that encourages the reader to think, extend and extrapolate.
He contends that “The liberal story celebrates the value and power of liberty…However since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story.”
Harari points out that, “Both politicians and voters are barely able to comprehend the new technologies, let alone regulate their explosive potential.” Just look at how Brexit came to be. Essentially, Brexit is in force because voters expressed their frustration and confusion in the face of significant complexity, instead demanding that the UK be left alone to rekindle the halcyon days of independence from the rest of Europe – a myth, but a powerful myth.
Is it possible that as science celebrates the rise of new technologies such as genome editing, machine learning, and algorithms that automate production lines, we appear to make ordinary people and their lives irrelevant? Is science truly only relevant for elites that have a hope of understanding how they may apply to the world?
The psychological reality in the face of these pressures is to retreat and reject, with the fear of irrelevance boiling over into a rejection of fact. Michael Young, in his 1958 book (revised in 1994), The Rise of the Meritocracy, predicted all of this: he argued that the emergence of elites ostensibly based on competition and talent would not address issues of inequality: those left behind would still feel resentment and distrust.
One way to express power, then, is through rejecting facts and embracing fear — and you can see how this is a slippery slope toward embracing conspiracy theories. Many of us may say these beliefs are just plain crazy, but perhaps they may be understood as a reaction to the elites and increasing divides we have created. Why should I care about diversity, equity, and inclusion if at the same time I am feeling shut out of the powerful, unintelligible world of science?
Perhaps the last year has helped us turn a corner of understanding how science can be leveraged on behalf of us all. It is quite incredible to see the level of global collaboration on vaccine development, and how information on the COVID-19 pandemic has been democratized. Yes, there will always be extremists who reject vaccines, but the world has been included.
In summary, perhaps now is the time to focus on enabling the democratization and relevance of content for all. As we discuss an infrastructure for openness in our research and publishing ecosystem, let’s allow room for showing how science and technology may be directly relevant to our lives. How do we explain what we do so that science is not something to be afraid of?
I do not provide answers to these questions. What I ask is that we focus on the democratization of science as a priority in a bid not to further alienate an already fearful and suspicious population.