This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist, Adriana Bankston.


Being part of Future of Research, I often wonder whether the issues we are facing in the scientific system in the U.S. also exist elsewhere in the world. Although I grew up in Eastern Europe, most of my research experiences have been in laboratories across the U.S. This has definitely given me a great variety of experiences and perspectives. But, as I’ve recently witnessed in the March for Science events, science is indeed global and most likely we all face the same issues and can learn from each other.


Very recently, I had the great chance of remotely attending the 2nd Homo scientificus europaeus Meeting, entitled “A pan-European Scientists’ Community: Promoting an Open Science in an Open World“, which took place in Barcelona, Spain, and was introduced here. The main goal of this meeting was to foster the creation of a large pan-European community of citizen-scientists supporting the new social contract between science and society. The meeting was divided into 3 areas: 1) initiatives from grassroots organizations and organizers of various European “March for Science” marches; 2) a discussion of citizen science projects/engaging the public with science and 3) open science and broader issues in the scientific enterprise. The Future of Research Executive Director Gary McDowell gave a brief talk and participated in the debate in the final session.


Common themes emerged throughout this meeting, which are great reminders of how science is done or should be done in the future, not just in Europe, but everywhere in the world. To some extent, I was already aware of these issues, but hearing them from multiple researchers in different European countries as well as in the U.S. solidified the idea that these are indeed global issues in science that need changing. Beyond specific points described below, science needs to serve society, and this is not always emphasized enough in today’s scientific climate.


Part 1 – Grassroots organizations and European “March for Science” marches


The need for collaboration was emphasized in terms of having grassroots organizations across Europe with common goals work together to share tools and resources. This could certainly be expanded to the U.S. as well, and could foster change in science at a more rapid pace. Additionally, the idea of being very interdisciplinary in academia is important for a better scientific enterprise.


A common point from the March for Science images in Europe shown at this meeting was the participation of women. This is very encouraging, but still not all populations are equally invested in the process. While junior scientists participated in the march, we also need to engage senior scientists both in and after the march.


Part 2 – Citizen science projects/engaging the public with science


Engaging the public with science is critical to the success of the scientific enterprise. Speakers highlighted various citizen-science projects, and common points both in terms of involving citizens in actual experiments but also in devising the best ways to explain science to them. The participants were very enthusiastic, and the lead researchers really enjoyed being part of these projects. These activities were very educational for participants, in many cases resulting in the opportunity to present their work, co-author a paper, or win a small reward or prize. For the lead researchers, engaging in these activities can provide a new perspective on their own work, as well as a break from the laboratory environment.   


In spite of these benefits, the activities which a scientist does outside of the laboratory are not currently being incentivized or rewarded. In fact, for some researchers, spending time on these types of projects without the prospect of generating high impact publications was frowned upon by their peers.


Nevertheless, and perhaps for this very reason, we should continue to engage young people in science, and develop their conceptions and awareness of science early on (such as via the PERFORM project). The hope is that they will, in turn, promote the importance of science in society, and may even become agents of change in science by highlighting the value of contributions outside of the laboratory for the scientific system.


Part 3 – Open science and broader issues in the scientific enterprise


Within changing science, one main point was ensuring that the voice of scientists (in Europe but certainly globally also) is being heard. Common ideas in this regard from multiple participants were the need to change the scientific culture at its roots, to foster research on the scientific culture, and to incentivize the people leading these changes in science.


The point of incentives and rewards as brought up above is important for thinking about how we might change the system. Indeed, as many others pointed out, we need to provide adequate rewards for any efforts outside of the laboratory – for example public engagement, and also science advocacy, teaching and communication. This requires new metrics to assess the value of these types of activities for the scientific enterprise. One immediate gain that comes to mind is creating more well-rounded scientists, who can better serve society.


The idea of open science is a useful example to illustrate how researchers might perceive new things in science. Participants in this meeting were enthusiastic about the idea of open science, but pointed out that some researchers may be afraid to share their data widely. Indeed, helping scientists become comfortable with sharing their data will be critical to advancing science and adopting new practices for doing so.


However, as Gary McDowell pointed out, the question remains as to how we can best help researchers practice open science? To answer this question, we might ask ourselves why they are reluctant to share data. They may like things as they are, especially if they’ve been successful in the current system of science. Or, they may not understand the rules of open science and what that means for their own work. Finally, they may also lack appropriate training in this area. To this end, one great suggestion from the meeting was to “go change, go build, go train!” Other than these possible reasons, one point of consensus was the need for a bottom-up initiative to change the attitudes of scientists towards open science. Part of this point is changing the incentives and rewards for open science in order for it to become common practice.


Ultimately, as was also pointed out in this meeting, change in science is only possible if we expose these issues in the system. Otherwise, scientists will continue doing their work within the current state of science and never question how it could be improved. This can lead to misconceptions about the goal of the scientific enterprise, which is not (or should not be) solely about producing more academics. To my mind, producing trained scientists who can use their skills and expertise to benefit society should be the ultimate goal of academia.


Thus, again from this meeting, it is evident that we must change the perception that leaving academia makes someone a failure, or labels them as giving up on science altogether. Again to quote Gary McDowell, “leaving academia is not leaving science,” and this is a critical point to consider in terms of how we train scientists today. For example, studying the system of science itself, as we do at Future of Research, still requires gathering data and writing papers.


Finally, some outstanding questions remain which may guide our future goals both at Future of Research but also in meetings such as this one. These questions can help us think more deeply about how to make significant improvements to the scientific system. Below, I pose these questions and offer my own answers and thoughts on limitations:


1) Whose responsibility is it to change science? I would argue that scientists at all levels need to contribute to this change, as well as other stakeholders like scientific societies and organizations. However, we need to alter both incentives and rewards for all of these parties to accept the changes proposed.


2) How do we engage the senior scientists in changing science? I would suggest showing data on specific issues in science to help them understand the gravity of the situation. Nevertheless, this requires convincing a researcher who has built their entire (successful) career in one system that we need to alter it drastically from the ground up.


3) How do we ultimately change science? I believe that we should experiment on the system of science itself, so that we can discover the best ways of doing science. Still, this requires finding ways to measure quantifiable changes in the scientific system, as well as an environment that encourages these kinds of experiments.  


Have any thoughts on any of the three questions above? Please let us know!