Science as a public good

Published On: 3 November 2021|

Professor Stephanie Burton, a biochemist by profession and Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus, was keen to highlight the role that universities should play in enhancing the public good and enabling meaningful lives. Also speaking during the Research Integrity and the Engaged University session within USAf’s recent 2nd Higher Education Conference, she asked “What exactly do we mean when we talk about The Engaged University?”

Turning to integrity, she stated that academics do research to generate new knowledge, to find answers to questions – to solve problems and address challenges that we face in this 21st century digital, connected, information-driven world. She said the research we do needs to create an impact for a better future, and to facilitate innovation for the benefit of society.

For Professor Burton (above), research comes with rights, responsibilities and obligations. These she detailed in some depth:

  • Rights
    • Academic freedom.
    • Enabling environment.
    • Access to facilities.
    • Freedom from discrimination.
    • Freedom from abuse.
  • Accepting responsibilities
    • Social responsibility.
    • Justice.
    • Benevolence.
    • Respect for individuals.
    • Professionalism.
  • Duties and obligations
    • Whistle blowing.
    • Codes of ethics.
    • Reputational protection.
    • Individual and Institutional obligations.

She said every university and research facility has a Code of Conduct that talks to, at least, the value and dignity of the promotion of knowledge; the responsibility to pursue and present truth as the researcher sees it; a responsibility for how the research is conducted; critical self-discipline and judgement in the use and dissemination of knowledge; and to respect the authority of professional codes in specific disciplines.

While these Codes have existed for decades, much has changed over the past two years, partly due to CoViD-19 but also in terms of the rights of communities that academics work with and in. It is thus necessary for researchers to adhere to realistic, believable standards. Most universities have ethics approvals management — a series of regulations, policies, committees, processes, compliance monitoring, at institutional and national levels. Universities also offer courses in ethical research and research integrity. These programmes are run at all levels — in undergraduate student modules, in programmes for researchers, in refresher courses and community information sessions. Aligned to this is research data management — collating, saving, archiving and providing appropriate access to institutional research data. Lastly, she pointed to the need for responsible reporting and exploitation for innovation.

Communicating research

Professor Burton added that as important as doing ethical research is, it counts for very little until it has been communicated. Research and its outcomes must be actively shared as widely as possible and the results should be available for translation into action, to benefit society through contribution to new development. If results are not published, the broader community do not benefit and they might, rightfully, question the value and impact of the research.

She also spoke of emerging trends that have largely grown out of the urgency of the pandemic. Open access publishing, for one, has increased. This makes results available for everyone (often for free). There has also been a rise in publishing online which takes place prior to review and allows the public to read these pieces and draw their own conclusion before proper peer review has taken place. She said the most worrying trend is the unethical practice of publishing in predatory journals: paying to have an article published in a journal that may have little or no academic standing, without reliable, credible peer review of the science being reported. This means no basis for ensuring that the research has met the internationally accepted standards for truth, meaning, and value, leading to highly tenuous conclusions.

The UP professor went on to say if we look to the future of the information age, it is likely that the online reality will proliferate. Managing research data will become increasingly important, and increasingly unmanageable. New technologies are posing new questions: Will Artificial Intelligences (AIs) help us in detecting fraudulent data and plagiarism? Can we ethically allow AIs to do research like conducting literature searches? What will students learn as they fall deeper into an AI research environment, will they simply believe, thus falling into the traps of the internet era?

She said to offset this requires that researchers constantly build trust. They need to establish systems for effective risk communication, for tackling disinformation and misinformation during crises and strengthen the role of official sources in this regard. Moreover, researchers need to develop communication strategies for advice and policy that are evidence-based, that are flexible and nuanced and that counter stigmatising and homogenising discourses that serve to exclude and marginalise. “We need to build community linkages with rural and urban communities and provide education at all levels.”

In conclusion, Professor Burton said researchers need to become influencers that use the same social media to promote research integrity, trust and transparency. “We must enable our scientific communities to identify value, and appreciate high quality, ethical scientific practices”, she wrapped up.

As an active member of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group of USAf, Professor Burton played a significant role in influencing the research agenda for USAf’s 2nd Higher Education Conference. She is the immediate past Vice-Principal for Research and Postgraduate Education at UP, having served in that role from 2011 to 2020. Professor Burton has a keen interest in research ethics and integrity and has recently led numerous colloquia in this topical area. She is recognised for her leadership and expertise in research strategy, research management, and performance, postgraduate training, innovation activities, open science and science communication initiatives, and internationalisation programmes. She is currently coordinating national projects on mentoring and capacity development for early career academics, on behalf of USAf. She serves on several national and international bodies related to research and doctoral training.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.