Context and Engagement

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This section is really the heart of this collection, the central strand that connects what started as anger and frustration, through fear of the consequences of a lack of engagement, to a realisation of how communities and their cultures are at the centre of any change. The pieces in the first section focussed on persuasion, the second on technical possibilities. But each of them neglected the communities and the context they find themselves in. If one arc of the synthesis of my thinking has been to see the network as an abstraction that can help us to work around the messy complications that people and context introduce, then the other has been to begin to understand how important are the context and communities that drive change.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My background is in the sciences and specifically the analytical and quantitative sciences. As many have noted, if not complained, researchers from the hard sciences generally find it easy to dismiss “softer” sciences, let alone disciplines in the humanities. I became interested in social sciences in the first instance as a tool, seeing an opportunity to take insights from sociology and apply them in driving change. It was only later that I would realise that such applied social sciences was in fact politics or political economics.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A deeper understanding that context was central to understanding change, indeed that it was a crucial element of understanding why and where change might be desired, or desirable, would require outside intervention. Or rather interventions. I am stubborn. One of they key turning points was my attendance at a small meeting run by the ESRC Genomics and Policy Forum, an effort to bring social and natural scientists together to discuss challenging policy issues in genomics. “A Citizen of the Network” was a direct response to a challenge from Marina Levina against exactly the kind of thinking that characterised the previous section and therefore forms a natural bridge from the technical to the social.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 There were many aspects that made that meeting a turning point, one that built on foundations laid over the previous years. In 2011 I became involved in the Scholarly Communication in Africa Project as an advisor. Ostensibly I was involved to provide advice on the opportunities that alternative approaches to research metrics might offer for African scholarship. In fact I learned far more than I probably contributed. The project was my first real introduction to a research project built on a humanist frame – when I claim in the later essay “Who do you get to say I am” that I’ve been more engaged in Marxist models than genetics it is SCAP I am referring to – my first trip to Africa, indeed my first work trip outside of the safe spaces of Europe, North America and Australasia.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Cape Town is not all of South Africa and South Africa is certainly not all of Africa but even the relative shock of that experience was enough to start a reassessment. Sympathy for the disadvantages that researchers and communities face outside the wealthy centres of Western scholarship is a natural part of Open Access advocacy but it is less common for that sympathy to extend to deep understanding of the lived experience. Indeed some years later the most important thing I have learnt in providing advice to scholars in developing and transitional is to remind myself that I don’t understand.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Of course the realisation that understanding is a constant journey is not limited to the interactions between North and South or rich and poor. Even within wealthy institutions real engagement with the users of research is rare. In medically relevant research there is lip service given to the needs of patients. But yet there is little attention given to constructing the research process so as to maximise its impact on patients, or to the speed with which results reach patients. Far more attention is given to funding and to prestige.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Possibly it was through being angry on behalf of groups outside the research elite that I started to try to understand more of their perspective. But I was angry first. This certainly comes out in “Wears the Passion?” written in a fit of (self)righteous indignation about the way some cancer researchers who inhabit and benefit from that system driven by funding and prestige cloak themselves in a concern about the patient. The mounting evidence at the time was showing that cancer research was systematically less open in terms of the data sharing that could drive progress in treatment.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Similar to the way my understanding (or recognition of my lack of understanding) of the challenges of developing world scholars was shocked into growing out of an abstract sympathy, my anger about the lip service given to patient needs had to be shocked into growth from an abstract view that open science would drive patient outcomes. The date of that shock is easy to place. The Sage Congress, the first big meeting driven by the Sage Bionetwork program was held in early 2010. The talk given by Josh Sommer was for many people at that meeting and beyond a key turning point. Josh is a Chordoma sufferer and leader of the Chordoma Foundation, a patient led research initiative into the disease. His simple message was that the research needed to be faster because he didn’t have the time given his prognosis of a few years. When people tell me early sharing of results is too risky for them I still point them to that video.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 That anger has calmed over the years. After all if I am to claim that understanding the needs of disadvantaged players in the research process requires understanding their context, then equally it follows that some sympathy for the context of even privileged researchers is appropriate. Privilege can be its own trap and as we saw in the previous section many researchers in North America and Europe, both the conventionally successful and those who fall behind are struggling to escape from a world that isn’t what they were promised. But if the anger has calmed the fear that underlies my post on the Sage Congress remains.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Reading that post today, it comes across as aggressive and demanding. But my memory of its genesis is of a dawning horror. I was already aware of the challenges of the research impact agenda within the academy. My interest in Open Access and Open Data was driven at least in part by the idea that research could be more efficient. But this was the first time I recall seeing the yawning gap between what researchers were doing, and what those who were supposed to benefit, indeed those who were raising the money, actually wanted.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 My most vivid memory of that meeting is not actually of Josh’s talk – the availability of the online video has blurred the memory in many ways – but of sitting on the San Francisco pier listening to someone say (and I paraphrase at a distance of half a decade) “…what’s the fucking point? I’ve raised two billion dollars over the last decade and patients today get the same treatment as I did 20 years ago…”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Some people find me overly aggressive when I say that a recalibration of priorities is needed; that choosing the right licensing, that listening to stakeholders, truly engaging with the users and beneficiaries of research is not an option, but is crucial to survival. I’m told it comes across as threatening, but where it really comes from is fear. Fear that in turning inwards the research community loses the confidence of the communities that ultimately fund us. That fear is also what drives the final piece in this section, a plea for the research community to engage more effectively with Wikipedia and Wikimedia Foundation projects, not because its “engagement” or a thing we should do, but because its what the research community must do to engage with the de facto aggregation point for today’s public knowledge.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In the end a common theme of this section is how best to make research useful. Not in a utilitarian sense but in the sense of how research can be appropriate. This means, as in the last piece in this section focussing on the way we communicate the research that has been done; the licenses, media, re-usability and choice of language. But it also means working with communities to identify what research could be useful, what research is wanted, and perhaps also what is not wanted.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Within the academy and the political bodies that support it these issues are being addressed through the Responsible Research and Innovation agenda, particularly in Europe but these remain top down initiatives, often still driven by narrow linear models of the application and benefits of research. At the same time truly bottom up approaches to research agendas are challenging to implement at best. Expertise does matter, the balancing of values and needs of a community against the experience (and questions of the relevance of that experience) of experts remains to my mind an unsolved political, if not philosophical challenge.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In the end the pragmatic lesson is simply to listen. Do I have more expertise, more experience, on some issues than most other people? Yes. Does that mean I have the right answer in a specific context? Not necessarily. Compound this with the human tendency to see in a given context a pattern that matches to previous experiences, to filter the evidence through the areas of knowledge where we are already comfortable and the challenges multiply. Equally the user in drawing on the time and experience of experts needs to do the converse, to seek the value out of that experience in the local context, and ideally to accept the challenge that greater perspective can bring to that local view.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 There are no simple answers as to the how of this. Not in this section, or indeed in this whole collection. You may discern in this set of five pieces an evolution of the awareness of the challenges of how to make research relevant and appropriate to those who might use it, for those who it is for. Like much awareness it didn’t necessarily come from a purely positive place, being built on anger, fear, and some confusion. In the end perhaps the best answer to confusion, to anger and to fear is simply to listen. Or not simply listen, but also to hear. And that’s why the answers won’t be found in a collection of my writing. The best we can hope for is to ask better questions.

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