As the world changes, science does too — and that’s a good thing
THE term “Industry 4.0” has been used for years to describe the need for societies to adapt their work and productivity to the “4th Industrial Revolution”, in which new technologies bridge the virtual, physical and biological domains. These terms have become so dominant that governments have adopted them into their policies and planning.
Against this backdrop it is important to ask whether – and how – the world of science is effectively adapting to an ever more connected and data intensive world. Is there such a thing as “Science 4.0”? What does this mean for society?
As scientists who have been involved in research, technological development, advocacy, diplomacy and the realisation of societal benefits from science, we believe that yes, “Science 4.0” is real. It is about a revolution in which science is an integral part of society, rather than being confined to public or private laboratories and institutions of higher learning. It is about recognising that scientists are people, subjective and opinionated – and people are scientists, curious and eager to learn. It is about embracing new technologies to do better science more responsibly and more inclusively.
Over the past nearly three decades, we have observed trends that show what is possible. These include openness, the importance of data, artificial intelligence, inclusion and crucial changes in the culture of science.
The term “open science” was first captured by the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002. It originated from open source software and open access literature; it includes the openness of data, methods, software, results and publications.
Openness is a shift away from traditional thinking around the protectionism of intellectual property. Its benefits to science have become increasingly clear.
Today most organisations have policies of openness, from the National Institutes of Health in the US to UNESCO. The African Open Science Platform, meanwhile, aims to grow open science practices across the continent.
Several business ventures have emerged. The Center for Open Science, for instance, sees people generating value by helping scientists to make their science more open.
Increasingly, scientific research involves very large data sets. From the massive genomics data to the data expected from future telescopes, data-intensive research is becoming the norm.
There is a shift in the scientific method from, for example, single observations to large scale statistical analyses. This progression calls for new infrastructure models to support scientific research. Cloud computing technologies are at the forefront of this shift; these combine easy access to and collaboration on data and analysis with high-performance computing.
Nowadays, data and codes are part of scientific publications. Containerisation, a technology that packages code and the computer environment in which codes are run, helps make results easily reproducible by others. Containers can be shared and cited.
Read more: Cloud computing could be key to speeding up Africa’s development
Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a tool of science as both data storage and computing power have become cheaper. Machine learning (computer algorithms improving with experience) is accelerating the rate of discovery in anything from drug development to image analysis.
AI is becoming advanced enough that it could do the whole cycle from hypothesis to result. As research accelerates, the rate of publications follows and AI can even be used to sift through the overwhelming literature. Scientific unions and other councils are also now discussing the ethics of AI.
Culture of science
Science 4.0 is not just a transformation of scientific tools and methods. It also affects the culture of science and how we evaluate scientific work. Outreach is increasingly valued as a part of a scientist’s tasks. Counting publications and citations is limited and doesn’t reflect the true impact of research.
Scientists are also admitting that science is done by people – and that means acknowledging their failings. Misconduct by scientists is not taken lightly. Science is slowly becoming more family friendly too, with some conferences offering childcare facilities.
One area that’s worth watching is the speed of science. The race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 has demonstrated that science can be done fast, albeit sometimes at the expense of quality.
Read more: International Statistic of the Year: Race for a COVID-19 vaccine
This speed may become more common in some areas of science. And that’s potentially a good thing because it brings the benefits of science to more people, more rapidly.
However, these new ways of science won’t benefit everyone unless scientists have a serious conversation about inclusion. For example, the pandemic also showed a disproportionate effect on women scientists as compared to men.
Inclusion has risen to the surface in recent years: minorities have denounced science as an unwelcoming space of rampant implicit bias that needs to be claimed by diverse identities. This has given rise to large grassroots visibility campaigns such as the #BlackInSTEM hashtag on social media and open conversations about inclusion.
In the developing world, academic isolation is a multifaceted challenge. Academics in relative isolation can become the targets of predatory publishers. Developing countries can be led to giving away their data, for example genomics of endemic species, or oral traditions recorded without permission but with misplaced good intentions of preservation.
Read more: Global academic collaboration: a new form of colonisation?
This situation is not sustainable. Initiatives are emerging to ensure communities are involved and benefit from research carried out on them, on their environment, and ultimately their universe.
It is also worth noting the growth of citizen science and its evolution from passive data gathering to participatory approaches to research.
Role of Science 4.0 in a changing world
Progress in science is not about bringing more people into an ivory tower. It is about breaking down the tower completely and helping scientists work with and among people.
As the world grapples with building back better, the scientific community needs to display engaged leadership and play an active, humanistic role in shaping policies, public perceptions and technologies for a sustainable future.