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Engaged Research is Rigorous and Accountable

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Over the past week, several conversations seem to challenge the real meanings of community-engaged (community-based) participatory research. A conversation with scholars from a dozen Commonwealth countries highlighted the growing disconnect between research and teaching functions within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). As the core function of HEIs is to produce new knowledge and ‘educate’ a new generation of students in that knowledge, it is indeed a serious concern if such a disconnect is not addressed.

The changing nature of the knowledge economy was at the centre of another conversation with development professionals and scholars. Stratification within the knowledge industry and exclusion of women at higher tiers of policy-making were reported as widespread in many countries. A ‘Platform of Women Scientists’, based in Germany, is trying to address this discrimination. As knowledge production has become multi-polar, multi-modal and multi-institutional, HEIs are facing stiff competition to ‘protect’ their space in the knowledge industry.

The Bristol conference—Engage 2015—focused on impacts of engagement. In particular, engaged research was seen to be gaining followers in HEIs as well; but, there were serious questions about the quality and standards of engagement. As the recent global study on Community-University Research Partnerships shows (undertaken by the UNESCO Chair, available at http://unescochair-cbrsr.org/unesco/pdf/UNESCO%20Book%20Web_with%20BookCovers_Aug202015_FINAL.pdf), ‘co-construction’ of knowledge is still controlled by universities and academics, with very limited influence of community and civil society. Rigorous co-construction will entail ‘co-governance’ of research projects and processes.

At the macro level, responsible research needs to focus on science policy and investment in science. In many scientific enterprises, from engineering to computing to agriculture and health, funding of science and research has significantly shifted from public resources to private sources. Today, private foundations are big funders of research. To whom are such private investments in science and research accountable? Is there a democratic process of asking the questions about the purpose of science and research? How will ethical and moral considerations influence the future society based on research conducted today? Is there citizenship in science?

These questions of rigour and accountability are also being asked by scientists and their associations. A conference of senior scientists in California last week has asked for a moratorium on ‘genome-modification’ research as its effects in changing the DNA of humanity have not even been explored, let alone debated publicly. The declaration of World Science Forum last month in Hungary also called for public scrutiny of science and research. Citizens Science Foundation has issued a parallel call for responsible research to be publicly discussed. Yet, most science policy and science funding agencies in the public and private sectors are populated by scientists and funders. Independent voices of civil society and citizens are not even spoken of in this regard, let alone heard!

Making research more rigorous and science more accountable requires dynamic and mutually respectful engagement between research communities and society. It is important to emphasise this contemporary challenge as the world celebrates the centenary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and International Year of Light in 2015.

Lest another Manhattan Project result in other Hiroshimas and Nagasakis!

Rajesh Tandon                                                     December 5, 2015

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