Open science can help accelerate – and protect – high-quality research in low-income countries
The public call to make science more open and transparent is not only longstanding, it has been intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to the health crisis, researchers around the world have gotten together and worked to understand the nature of the disease, develop vaccines, and create efficient ways to diagnose and treat patients.
While the burst in research is gratifying – from just January to May 2020, more than 23,000 scientific papers were published, creating a “massive literature trove” – the numbers are growing so quickly that it can be difficult to distinguish between groundbreaking research and mere noise.
Here, open science could help filtering out sketchy research, thus protect the public’s interests from the danger of politicised science in less-democratic countries. But the process has to be handled carefully so it does not put researchers from mid- to low-income countries in a vulnerable position.
Filtering out shady research
As a part of the crisis response, Indonesian researchers are persevering in speeding up their research. However, the country is also an unfortunate example where science and politics could be an odd and sometimes dangerous union.
Many observers mentioned that Indonesian government’s responses to Covid-19 crisis have been incoherent, confusing, and unclear. Unwilling to apply stricter quarantine policies, the government bet on a vaccination plan, including developing a domestically produced vaccine. Two vaccines are currently under development: Merah-Putih, by a research consortium led by Eijkman Institute of Microbiology, and Nusantara, developed by a research team under the leadership of Terawan Agus Putranto, the former health minister. Replaced in December 2020, he was at the centre of a dispute after promoting a controversial health treatment against stroke and playing down the scale of the pandemic while holding the ministerial position.
Despite the unconventional approach of developing a vaccine, the Nusantara team claims that their dendritic-based vaccine would produce stronger cellular antibodies that could last a lifetime. Such extraordinary claims are regarded by a number of molecular biologists as being impossible. In particular, dendritic-based therapy is more common in treating cancer patients and its research is still in the early-phase. Moreover, the production plan of Nusantara vaccine is deemed unsuitable for emergency roll-out.
Instead of disseminating their findings to the academic community, the team sought support from parliamentary members by politically pressing the Indonesian Food and Drug Supervisory Agency to put an approval stamp for progressing to the mid-stage clinical trial. During the hearing, the parliamentary members made accusations mixed with ethno-nationalist sentiments that the agency head intentionally hampered the vaccine development and not being appreciative to their “fellow Indonesians’ creations”.
Notwithstanding the pressure, the agency head was adamant about her decision to delay its progress. While the study protocol is registered publicly, no other public records, including report or data, are available to the public and thus making scientific scrutiny virtually impossible.
Nusantara vaccine is not the first. Previously, Universitas Airlangga’s drug research and Universitas Gadjah Mada’s breath analyser were facing the same criticism due to the teams’ failure to made their detailed work publicly available while the need to immediately translate the research findings into practice was essential.
While Universitas Airlangga’s drug research was putting on hold, the breath analyser is planned to be widely used to screen people in schools, offices, tourist attractions, and cinemas with only partial scientific data available to public.
The need for public scrutiny
Had open science been a norm, the flowery claims would have been easier to deflate, preventing the needless waste of public funds. Moreover, only truly groundbreaking research will survive scientific scrutiny. Reliable research will progress faster since the teams allow scientific community and lay public to verify claims and participate in expansion of the research.
It is virtually impossible to expect lay people to put their trust in science and scientists, while scientists are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for their own claims. It is important to note that lay people would trust scientists who are persevering to get their research right, not for being right.
To optimise limited research budget, bringing ongoing publicly funded research projects visible to the public through pre-registration or registered report which means scientists write down their study details in a time-stamped document before actually collecting data, would improve confidence in claims and avoid duplication.
After finishing the project, posting research report as a preprint along with the data would allow the scientific community to vet the credibility of the claims. By performing robust and legal checks, the scientific community could protect the public’s interest and avoid the damaging effects of unreliable science, especially when it can be politicised for ethno-nationalist purposes like in Indonesia.
Although Indonesia’s new science law mandates that researchers deposit their data on the National Scientific Repository, it is yet to be a common practice for two reasons; the formulation of technical regulation is still ongoing, and data sharing has yet become the norm.
But what are the risks?
Working as an aspiring scientist in the largest nation in Southeast Asia, my life is a constant struggle between surviving the pressure to produce flashy research and navigating our projects amid poor available research infrastructure.
In 2020 alone, Indonesia spent less than 0.5% of its GDP in research spending, with only 89 researchers per one million inhabitants. This number is in stark contrast to its neighbouring countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. To properly adopt open scientific practices, researchers in countries with growing research culture might face different, if not higher, hurdles than their counterparts in North America, Europe and Australia.
Apart from the lack of research infrastructure, less-democratic countries might be less appreciative to academic freedom. The populist government often use science as a token to please the public, and a mere tool to exercise their own political agenda. Practising honest, rigorous science might carry risks, especially when the government does not like the result.
Contaminated with feudalism and authority bias, universities restrict their role to cultivate scientific debates. People often confuses criticism with personal attacks and are reluctant to admit limitations and past mistakes. Owning limitations and acknowledging critics is rarely valued when dishonest behaviours are rewarded.
This is a downside when science is seen as a rat race, not a careful, meticulous effort to pursue the truth. In this case, redesigning national science policy that champions academic freedom is very critical to shape a strong and sustainable research ecosystem.
During the health crisis, it is more challenging for early-career scientists to get proper training due to lack of funding. Meanwhile, to be able to improve the credibility of their research, scientists should be equipped with intense training that allow them to critically design, evaluate, and conduct methodologically robust research.
While free online resources are widely available, such courses do not equate with formal training, like PhD and Postdoctoral program. Global collaborations that minimise systematic barriers for researchers from mid- to low-income countries to access funding for training would help cultivating healthy research culture in the long run.
At last, educating the next generation about what it means to do good research would prevent the same mistakes from being repeated. In this regards, teaching metascience at university level might benefit students by preparing them with necessary skills to critically appraise scientific claims. Metascience helps student to properly understand how science works and many ways to improve its credibility.
By doing so, I believe good science will prevail.