The role of science in society: learning from knowledge systems

This post is contributed by Clément Gévaudan, Senior Program Associate at the Global Development Network.

The role of science in society: learning from knowledge systems

Have you ever thought about the role that science should play in our societies? It is a recurring debate which generally concludes with the view that science is a driver of innovation. At the Global Development Network (GDN), we see the role of science as an essential element of democratic policy-making. It fosters innovation and investment in the knowledge economy, enables the production of high quality knowledge, allows for the critical analysis of evidence, and can offer possible solutions for policy challenges.

This much is a given: Scientific knowledge must be a local public good; anyone should be able to access it, to make use of it, and it should be relevant to the local context in which it is applied.

Science inequalities – is there a research trap?

If we look at the research currently published in academic journals, how much of it is written by developing country authors? According to SCOPUS data, in 2012 only 2.3 % of the world’s research articles had at least one African author. Looking at data of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, high-income countries spend on average 328 times more on research and development than low-income countries. The Least Developed Countries (LDC), the United Nations’ category of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the world, counted on average less than 40 researchers per million inhabitants in 2014, while the same number amounts to more than 3500 in developed countries. There is a gap in research which cannot only be explained by the sheer difference in economic development. Institutions, norms, infrastructure and capacity, are just some of the challenges weighing down on the research culture in the South.

Figure 1: the difference in science investment between rich and developing countries. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Gross Expenditure on R&D per capita, Constant 2005 $PPP.

A systems approach to understand research performance

To guarantee a stronger research base in the South, the solution must be found at the level of systems with all the analysis it implies in terms of new theoretical frameworks, data and appropriate metrics. Research systems are the set of institutions, practices, structures and rules that enable the undertaking of quality research, and its effective communication and use by a broad range of stakeholders. A research system has three parts: production, diffusion and uptake. All three must be studied and benchmarked to develop our understanding of research performance. This would, in turn, support development policy uptake, create ownership of local research, and provide the scientific community with a new set of metrics at a macro level. For the first time ever, the Global Development Network is pioneering the approach in its Doing Research program, informed by the results from a seven-country pilot phase.

Box 1: Three functions of the research system: production, diffusion and uptake. GDN’s Doing Research program.

Traditional metrics largely follow an input-output approach, and tend to focus on the research output by counting the number of publications and citations. We propose to shift this paradigm from the research output to form the research process. As a matter of fact, the system in which research takes place contributes, as a whole, to research quality. Building on the three functions described above, it becomes possible to create a model of the research system to help assess its usefulness. The model can provide a way of looking at the obstacles, and also the potential solutions for building a research culture that informs public debate and democratic policymaking.

The potential of altmetrics

Altmetrics have considerable strengths to bring to this type of analysis, by measuring the diffusion and uptake of research on social media or policy documents. So far, it has helped us to answer questions such as: Has a particular piece of local research been shared extensively with a wider audience? Was it cited in media or blog posts? Has it been used in policy documents? Altmetrics is a birthing metrics which is currently used to track research engagement at the article and journal level, but it may well have a role to play in conducting future research assessments, informing research policy and contributing to establishing a research culture where evidence is not yet the norm and research does not fit into policy formulation and evaluation. In the end, developing a better understanding of research systems will also help us to know what we want the role of science to be in our societies.

Before we conclude, let us look at some altmetrics data which covers Twitter mentions of all publications in the five main journals on development specialized on Africa.[1] It tells us two things, which confirm previous studies that GDN has conducted in its Doing Research program. Firstly, major donor countries are those who are the most interested in this research. Why is development research being discussed more in developed than in developing countries? In fact, the African countries where the research culture is the strongest are, without surprise, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. However, a number of countries still don’t see a single mention of this particular research on Twitter.

[1] The map covers data from all documents ever published in the Review of African Political Economy, the Journal of Contemporary African Studies, the Journal of African Economies, the African Development Review and the Journal of African Business.

Figure 2: Twitter mentions of five most important African journals on development

We are now left with even more questions than we began with. How can we improve this situation and attempt to bridge the research gap? What indicators from altmetrics can help to understand the challenges of research in the South? For more insights into a systems approach to research, see you in Toronto at the 4:AM Conference on 27 September!

Learn more

Africa doubles research output over past decade, moves towards a knowledge-based economy.
Assessing Research Systems in Developing Countries – 5 reasons why it matters and a teaser on how to get started.
Doing Research Assessments: A Theoretical Framework to Assess Research Systems.