This year’s General Assembly and Annual Conference will prove to be fertile ground for research and democracy, underscoring the topic’s importance. We sat down with moderator Matthew DiFranco and speaker Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, both of whom are actively working to develop science diplomacy as an interest area for members.
The ‘MCAA Forum on Research and Democracy’ session was held at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in November 2019. Organised under the auspices of the 20th World Science Forum, the session highlighted the historical role of research in democratic societies and brought up lessons from that history to shape how the research community responds to the challenges faced today. They include the global rise of political threats to democratic values and broader societal challenges.
In 2018, DiFranco attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Diplomacy workshop in Washington, DC. AAAS’ pioneering efforts help to advance both science and the broader relationships among countries by promoting science diplomacy and international scientific cooperation. The MCAA Chair is using his training to get MCAA members to advocate for a stronger role of research and scientific knowledge in policy. This year’s General Assembly and Annual Conference will prove to be fertile ground for research and democracy, underscoring the topic’s importance.
RESEARCH AS A DEMOCRATISING FORCE
“In society, researchers play a critical role in understanding the world around us, democracies thrive when the people are informed and have a voice,” explains DiFranco. “There’s a larger mission for researchers defined in part by democratic ideals that can be achieved through collaboration and some sort of shared values.” He continues: “People committing their careers to this endeavour of advancing knowledge should play a part in ensuring that societies can achieve democratic norms where health, education and security are assured.”
When it comes to democracy in research, DiFranco states that the session stressed the need for education. “There’s a need for quality education at a basic level to ensure that the public is educated enough to understand and to differentiate between fake and real news, to grasp and apply critical thinking and logic in order to make sound decisions for society,” he says. “Education, this is where researchers can play an active role to promote it, disseminate information, set up society to publish things openly, and to interact with journalists and government.”
“We have the knowledge, the evidence, and basically we have the best people who can solve the current global challenges,” notes MCAA Vice-Chair Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, who was also one of the speakers. “As scientists, it is really high time we take responsibility, and stand and work together to solve pressing issues. The role of scientists and researchers in democratic societies is often threatened when democracy is at risk.” He adds: “We are living in an era of specialists, everyone is a specialist, and that is compartmentalising us. We sometimes miss the bigger picture, we need to include every faculty and specialty in the decision-making process. Only then can we meet global challenges.”
Moonir calls attention to “scientific discovery”, and whether all stakeholders in the higher education domain have the same understanding of research and its role. In theory, these academic institutions are democratic, but aren’t so in terms of real decision-making. For him, a lot comes down to decision-making. Researchers need to be empowered to influence such decisions.
THE PANEL WEIGHS IN
All five speakers see a connection to today’s issues of democracy: questions about researchers’ responsibility, where money goes and why, and if research can weaken democracy. They discussed the North-South and EastWest divide, and the imbalances that exist between global economic regions in research ecosystems. Murat Güneş (Secretary) indicated that emigrating North or West is a question of both funding and motivation. Researchers are encouraged to seek greener pastures because they have no established role to play a part in their country’s welfare and development. Gábor Kismihók (Chair) emphasised the prevalence of MCAA chapters in Western Europe and North America. He considers brain drain as the divide’s biggest challenge. Researchers all over the world are pursuing higher education in the Western world, departing their native countries and greatly reducing the chances of returning in the future. There is a need to look into mitigating this human capital flight.
With such radical changes in the world, Zsofia Buttel (Board Member) calls on researchers and scientists to make sure first-rate information is conveyed to shape decisions. She considers universities’ overarching goal to be education, and regrets the pressure they undergo to function primarily for economic purposes as driving forces of innovation. Trust also needs to be established between researchers, policymakers and the rest of society. A winner-take-all funding system seems to predominate. Nehama Lewis Persky (Board Member) observes a zerosum scheme for researchers in several countries.
GET ACTIVE IN UNDERSTANDING POLICY
In addition to getting more involved in associations like MCAA, DiFranco encourages members to engage locally as much as possible. “If you are a PhD or postdoc interested in policy, learn about laws that govern science research in your country, and ethical standards and structures in place in higher education. Who makes the decisions and appoints professors? Is it the government or private enterprise?” He also recommends holding politicians in office accountable. “Engage with policymakers who are specifically focused on research, education and science, and start a conversation with them. Look up current policies and regulations, what is being proposed, who sits on working groups, and how much industry and public influence there is.”
Find out more:
The MCAA Policy Working Group focuses on science policy and deals with topics such as researcher mental health, open access and academic refugees. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) are the two leading providers of top-notch lectures, workshops, courses and fellowships on science diplomacy. They also provide resources for science research and democracy.