How can open science help achieve sustainability?

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Nicola Jones

The time for action is now, write Nicola Jones and Nick Campbell

In August the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the scientific evidence of climate change. Its predictions about the future of global heating and potential for increased extreme weather events are dire. But for those who follow the science and have seen, or experienced this summer's floods, extreme heat, or the wildfires that have recently taken over Greece, the prognosis is no surprise. Yet the report is hopeful about the possibilities available to us to limit temperature increases through the concerted efforts of policymakers and society as a whole.

A focused, strategic and global approach to addressing the causes of climate change could pull us back from the precipice upon which we stand. But what does this have to do with research publishing? Of course publishers are part of a global network that reviews, improves, disseminates and ensures access to critical research that is providing the evidence-base about climate change - and, crucially - mitigation of its impact. However we believe that scholarly publishing, as a sector, has a wider role to play. Our impact is not just through publication of climate research, not just through our environmental consciousness as businesses, but also through driving open research. But why is open science critical if we are to collectively address climate change or support other sustainable development goals? 

The last 18 months has provided a perfect case study of why open science and open research matters. As Covid-19 took hold around the globe, it underscored how interconnected the world is and provided many examples of the vital role that open science could play in speeding up the response and improving outcomes. If rapidly and openly sharing research data and papers is critical to understanding and combating coronavirus, doesn’t the same hold true for climate and environmental concerns? Or other health issues such as cancer, heart disease, maternal and child mortality? 

The short answer is yes. But we have a long way to go. The past 18 months has shown the positive impact that open science can have in tackling the sorts of global issues that require collaborative, multi-disciplinary solutions. However it has also thrown into stark relief the gaps and challenges that hinder the full realisation of the potential of open research to help address societal challenges. The lack of integrated policy, if not tackled, will limit the social impact of open research, particularly with respect to the sustainable development goals (SDGs). 

The conversation around open science is no longer confined to academia and funding bodies. An understanding of the importance of streamlining and enabling better access to data and research has attracted much wider public interest. And this calls, on a wider policy level, for us to align infrastructures to ensure that open science can have a real world impact on the human, environmental and scientific problems that it can be used to solve. 

Our role as publishers in better enabling research to have real-world impact, and to better support the interconnection between science, policy and research, has never been more keenly underscored. During the pandemic we have seen what happens when the scientific community moves with great speed and clarity of purpose. It has clearly signalled that open science is the most efficient way to tackle issues that have a significant and direct effect on the lives of the general public and is making great strides to put this into meaningful action.

What can this look like in practice?

Last year the UN declared a ‘decade of action’, calling on all of us to focus our attention on the need for more urgent progress on the sustainable development goals, and in October the International Publishers Association joined the UN in launching the SDG Publishers Compact, with Springer Nature an early signatory. This industry-wide initiative pledged to contribute to the decade of action to make progress on the SDGs ahead of their 2030 deadline. Again science and research are key in understanding their impact, and finding and delivering solutions. 

Progress on the SDGs is arguably lagging and in some cases the pandemic has exposed gaps between the latest scientific insights and policy-making, as well as setting back progress that had already been made towards achieving the Goals. There’s a need to identify emerging trends, best practice and gaps to understand where to focus research efforts that could help drive progress to advance the SDGs to overcome these setbacks.

Back in 2019 Springer Nature started a longitudinal project with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and the Dutch University Libraries and the National Library consortium (UKB) to better understand the societal impact of academic and open research and its influence on delivery of the SDGs. Together, with Digital Science, our partnership led to the development of a new public SDG classifier enabling researchers, institutions and funders to explore all research published content for a specific SDG; a deeper understanding of how content is being consumed by non-academic audiences (i.e. those that can implement policy, develop new technology or adapt practice based on research evidence) and, as a final result of the project, a new toolkit for researchers to support them in achieving societal impact for their work. By soliciting and analysing data from across 9000 researchers we have begun to build a comprehensive approach to understanding how to better measure the impact of scientific output on the SDGs - both within academia and beyond it - and as such are starting to better understand trends to drive social impact and practice to support open science, that will benefit the global community. 

Bridging the gap between research and policy

By making underlying data, methodologies and published results available to anybody, open science makes it easier for more people to see for themselves what the evidence says, enabling them to trust (or critique) information from other sources, and make informed decisions. This informed application of the evidence, can help us to best address global societal challenges. However, there remain gaps between research and policy that can make this challenging. 

Last year we co-hosted a virtual conference, Science for a Sustainable Future, and invited experts to discuss how we can best bridge these gaps with examples of where research has successfully been translated into policy and practice to address the SDGs. One great example is the Food Systems Dashboard - a collaboration between universities and NGOs. From this conference several key recommendations emerged setting out recommendations for better connecting research and policy, separated out into recommendations for policy makers, for researchers and for academic institutions and research journals.

Three of those recommendations, which are clearly facilitated by open science, are:

  • Further develop existing knowledge infrastructures, institutions, and governance that encourage and enable continual, iterative engagement between policymakers, researchers, and the community in diagnosing problems and in decision-making processes; 

  • Increase the translation of the results of scientific assessments across all scales into practical guidance for policymakers and implementers; and

  • Raise scientific literacy and awareness of the SDGs among citizens and policymakers through greater collaboration, advocacy, and outreach.

We are fortunate to be part of a sector that so clearly has a positive contribution to make in addressing societal challenges, populated by people who are evidence-driven and solution-oriented and focused on ensuring that the high quality work, data sets, methodology that we are using is open and sustainable. As the UN has already recognised, through our collective actions, we can make a meaningful difference. We know what is at stake. We know where to seek solutions and who to involve to make meaningful progress. We now need to work together to ensure that it happens. The time is now.

Nicola Jones is head of publishing for the Springer Nature SDG Programme. Nick Campbell is vice president for academic affairs at Springer Nature.

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