By Blessing Mabate, PhD scholar in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Biotechnology at Rhodes University.
Governments, industries and funding bodies around the world are asking about the value of science and the impact it has. The Impact of Science conference was held online from Wednesday 23 June to Friday 25 June, by AESIS (Advancing and Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science) to discuss these issues.
The conference was hosted by the University of Cape Town, with Rhodes University, the Department of Higher Education and Training, the National Research Fund and others partnering for the event. It was attended by national leaders, researchers and university administrators around the globe, alongside a few lucky students such as myself.
While science is meant to be a public good, serving those within and beyond the university, it was agreed that demonstrating impact was a complex issue. In many countries represented at the conference, the ‘impact agenda’ has become a fundamental part of funding frameworks, quality assurance and ranking processes. There were a number of organisations at the conference describing their impact frameworks and Professor Mouton from Stellenbosch University discussed impact measurement in the South African system. There were mixed views about whether the ‘impact agenda’ is enhancing science’s relationship to society or becoming a bureaucratic burden.
The attendees generally concurred that science has reasonably good processes of discrediting malpractices such as the manufacture of data but science values freedom of exploration and it would seem that these are sometimes in tension.
Another big question was, ‘who shapes the direction of research (researchers, funders, industry, politicians, the public)?’ ‘Is science for policy or is policy for science?’ It was clear that universities need to do more to promote the transformative potential of open science. However, participation in open science raises the cost question: who will pay for it?
One of the major recommendations was that universities and research institutions need to re-evaluate their measures of science beyond narrow counts of peer-reviewed publications and patents. Participation in the open science movement and in community engagement to increase the societal impact of research need to be valued too. It was evident that in some institutions the knowledge system is shaped around around societal impact but in many, only traditional outputs are valued regardless of whether they have much effect in the world.
The conference agreed that there was a necessity for us to communicate our science with the general public more clearly. While not every academic will become a science journalist, we need to better network with media in an era of ‘alternative facts’. The initial science may be unproblematic, but the information may change according to the ‘clickbait’ narrative as it makes its way to social media and the press. A clear example of this in our own country are the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.
An important issue that came out strongly in these discussions is that science needs to be a far more inclusive endeavour and the need for transdisciplinary approaches is increasingly felt. We need to ask ourselves: Who is impacted by the science we produce? How? And is this impact always positive?
The question for us is: ‘Is Rhodes University in Makhanda or is Rhodes University for Makhanda?