Why are diversity and inclusion important for Global Science?

Why are diversity and inclusion important for Global Science?

CWTS is starting a new UNESCO Chair on Diversity and Inclusion in Global Science. In this blog post we outline why this topic matters and how our team aims to contribute to UNESCO's agenda of making science a positive force for development.

Created in 1992, the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chair programme is intended to support developing expertise in areas related to UNESCO’s mandate, such as education, culture, communication and the natural and social sciences. This network of over 850 institutions in 117 countries mobilises knowledge to address pressing societal challenges and contribute to development.

UNESCO has developed the 2017 Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers and the 2021 Recommendation on Open Science, building on the notions that science is a common good, that all humankind should enjoy the benefits of scientific knowledge and has the right to participate in it.

If you agree on this understanding of science as a common good, you may reply: “all right, yes, science is a common good, but right now:

  • Who benefits from science?
  • Which type of research topics are considered important?
  • Who participates in making science and deciding which knowledge is produced?”

The answers to each of these questions point in the same direction: science is heavily concentrated towards the interest of the privileged and it supports forms of innovation that actively contribute to world inequalities. For science to be a common good, there is a need for diversity and inclusion, which means:

  • Widening the distribution of the benefits of science across populations.
  • Pluralising research topics.
  • Broadening participation and activities in knowledge production, both of citizens and the academic workforce.

The new CWTS UNESCO Chair on Diversity and Inclusion in Global Science aims to contribute to the implementation of the 2017 and 2021 UNESCO Recommendations through a focus on Diversity and Inclusion in Global Science, in collaboration with a variety of research and policy partners in the world.

Why does the diversity of research topics matter for global science?

It has long been argued that, in general, diversity in research is beneficial because:

  • it fosters new ideas through recombination, for example in terms of interdisciplinarity;
  • it is an insurance against incertitude, given that we don’t know what the best solutions to problems are, it’s better to try out different avenues;
  • it prevents research from lock-in, i.e., it keeps the flexibility to adapt knowledge in the face of changing environments;
  • it accommodates plural perspectives, i.e., it allows science to reflect the contrasting views on issues that exist in society.

If we think of science as a key element for improving well-being and human development, diversity of knowledge is even more important. This is because research agendas are too often concentrated towards the issues and the framings that are relevant to the Global North and for powerful or privileged actors.

The historical role of science in colonialism and environmental degradation would be examples of this concentration of research towards the interest of the powerful. On the contrary, there is relatively much less research in topics which are more relevant for example for women, the Global South or some ethnic or indigenious groups.

Research efforts across diseases is a classic example of this: there is little research not only in some tropical diseases such as malaria, but also in topics such as cardiovascular diseases which affect poor populations, in comparison to investments in diseases such as cancers which are relatively more frequent in the richest populations.

Another example of imbalance is artificial intelligence. In this case, research is concentrated in topics that are relevant to big corporations rather than research involving other methods that are more useful to consider the societal and ethical implications of AI.

In short, making the contents of research more diverse is important for science to address the scientific problems associated with the challenges that matter to most people in the world.

Why is inclusion of social groups important for global science?

Now, for research to address a wider variety of topics, and especially societal challenges, it is necessary that science is more representative of the world population. Plural representation is both a normative and substantive imperative. In other words, researchers must come from a broader variety of social backgrounds and citizens must participate more actively in shaping knowledge so that science is more democratic and reflects plural interests and needs. For this purpose, science also needs to be created and shared in local languages (as suggested by the Helsinki Initiative on Multilingualism) and through open scholarly infrastructures.

In recent decades, science is already undergoing a transformation in this direction, with the growth of citizen science, and the increasing participation of concerned groups such as patients, or marginalised groups in dimensions such as gender, ethnicity or Global South countries.

However, many social groups still remain heavily underrepresented and face discriminatory working conditions or lack of academic freedom, and stakeholder engagement in science remains a challenge. There is still a lot of progress to be made so that science reflects the plurality of world societies.

How will the CWTS Chair contribute to UNESCO’s agenda?

Given the expertise of CWTS on S&T indicators and research assessment, our Chair aims to provide evidence to raise awareness on existing problems in diversity and inclusion in world science. We will work mainly along two complementary lines.

First, developing monitoring methods that illuminate progress in the adoption of the 2017 Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, and the recent Recommendation on Open Science, with a focus on making knowledge more accessible, representative and participatory.

The monitoring methods for these recommendations are not straightforward at all because they are related to values and need contextualisation. We have to go beyond existing statistical methods. To do so, we will build on expertise developed in projects for monitoring Responsible Research and Innovation, in particular SuperMoRRI.

Second, developing a multi-perspective observatory of global scholarly communication (let’s call it a Multiversatory!), focusing on making visible outputs and activities of the global academic community which are currently invisible. A classical example is the exclusion of national and local scientific journals from mainstream scientometric databases. So far, the global research landscape has been mapped using selective commercial databases which miss a large share of all scientific publications, particularly from journals in the social sciences and humanities and from the Global South.

However, more comprehensive open databases such as Crossref and OpenAlex are becoming increasingly available. These databases provide a more inclusive (though still incomplete) coverage for the Global South and also allows comparison of how visibility differs depending on perspectives. We believe that with these new databases a step change will be soon made in the analysis of the geography of scholarly communication. We expect to show that world science is actually more diverse than is frequently believed, but that many parts of the knowledge created often remain invisible.

1 Comment

Samuel Ujewe

It is about time we actively engaged in the production and distribution of knowledge that reflects the diversity of methods and perspectives of populations across the globe. No single social group has a monopoly of knowledge or methods of knowledge production. Also, we cannot dispense of the significance of context in the generation, distribution and use of knowledge.

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