• Open science provides accessible knowledge that can be shared and developed via collaborative networks.
  • It is high time that research universities embrace open science across their activities to expedite the achievement of the UN’s SDGs.
  • We need to scale up science communication to enhance the authority of research and ensure greater public access to scientific knowledge.

The UN Secretary-General’s annual Sustainable Development Goals’ progress report states that by early 2020 the world was not on track to meet its 2030 targets. Alongside the devastating consequences of COVID-19, the report also cites the limited availability of quality data, including internationally comparable data on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as an impediment to effective decision-making.

The power of data to advance SDGs has been well elaborated in a 2020 study by Elsevier, a global information analytics company. Yet as the study reveals, while research is rapidly expanding in certain SDGs, the results may not be translated into concrete action, plus more interdisciplinary collaboration is required. Because of the “grand challenges” facing the planet, there is a pressing need to narrow the gaps between disciplines, and between science, policy, and society.

This is where open science comes in because it entails unhindered access to scientific articles, access to data from public research, and collaborative research enabled by ICT tools and incentives. Grounded in such core values as quality, integrity, equity and collective benefit, open science promises to be a transformative enabler that provides accessible knowledge that can be shared and developed via collaborative networks.

To this end, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is in the process of finalizing a standard-setting Recommendation on Open Science, to be adopted by Member States in November 2021. And as the world enters the Decade of Action for sustainable development, it is high time that research universities embrace open science across their activities to expedite the achievement of SDGs.

Shifting the paradigm

Globally, a consensus on open science has yet to be reached. UNESCO conducted regional consultations and found that 46% of participants did not clearly understand what open science is. Furthermore, multiple factors such as fragmented policies, intense competition, technical barriers, cultural differences as well as the paywall-publishing model have put a strain on the openness of scientific data.

It takes time to shift the paradigm, but leading universities can tap into their global nature and century-old role in shaping the zeitgeist to spearhead open science concepts and practices. This could be done first through systemic integration of open science on campus. Utrecht University in the Netherlands, for instance, is among a handful of universities that have articulated open science as a guiding principle of institutional strategies and launched concrete programmes of action.

At a 2021 virtual university president forum in March 2021, over 60 university leaders in 31 countries and regions signed onto a joint statement committing to leveraging technology and upholding open science. Universities should continue to unleash their unique strength in thought leadership to facilitate the open science movement.

More importantly than ever, we need to engage in advocacy to build societal consensus, inform public policy and forge a supportive culture.

Elements of open science

Universities have been recognized as knowledge hubs. Open science, characterized by the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) principles, requires that scholars and researchers empower others with responsible and rigorous knowledge. Open science should therefore be embedded into college curricula both as an ethical matter, and as a more transparent approach to doing science.

Externally, we need to scale up science communication to enhance the authority of research and ensure greater public access to scientific knowledge in the so-called post-truth era. The dissemination of knowledge to the public at large will put individual citizens at the centre of sustainable development. In addition, participatory science initiatives can help dispel the illusion that sustainability is largely an academic or governance conundrum.

"More importantly than ever, we need to engage in advocacy to build societal consensus, inform public policy and forge a supportive culture."

—Wu Zhaohui, President, Zhejiang University

Open science seeks to reduce knowledge gaps by promoting equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. This is particularly crucial for under-resourced communities where the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing inequalities. Through partnerships and networks, higher education institutions should harness information and communication technologies to connect various knowledge systems and combine complementary insights to benefit the widest possible range of learners.

Another essential element of open science is accessibility at all stages of the scientific process. At Zhejiang University, for example, we have launched the “Research at Zhejiang University” portal in an attempt to create a social virtual research environment for inter-team and interdisciplinary sharing and interactions.

We are also leading the construction of the Centrifugal Hyper-gravity and Interdisciplinary Experiment Facility (CHIEF), a large-scale infrastructure supporting open science practices. Zhejiang University is also diversifying its career evaluation metrics by attaching greater weight to teaching achievement, academic leadership, and societal impact.

A rendering of the Centrifugal Hyper-gravity and Interdisciplinary Experiment Facility (CHIEF), an infrastructure supporting open science.
Image: Zhejiang University

Value of collaboration

With the blurring of traditional disciplinary, sectoral, and geographical boundaries in research and innovation, universities must engage new actors beyond the boundaries of academia. Top-flight research universities have established themselves as the centres and engines of local innovation ecosystems, as exemplified by the successes of cities like Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Boston in the United States.

That synergy is also growing in emerging economies through virtual platforms or physical institutes founded in partnership with external entities, where companies and researchers are brought together to explore a more rapid translation of scientific discoveries to empower those in need. We believe that open science, if connected with open innovation, has the potential to bridge the last mile between labs and lives and contribute to inclusive growth.

Despite geopolitical uncertainties, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has demonstrated the immense value of international collaboration. In this same spirit, universities, research institutions, governments and businesses are committing to the open science model.

This is reflected in findings from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development which show that the US and China have turned out to be the biggest partners in COVID-19 biomedical research collaborations. The SDGs present a compelling need for a robust science-policy-practice interface. Universities should continue stretching beyond what they have already done to keep up the “open science” momentum.