Building Community for Rethinking Science and Challenging the Ivory Tower

By Manuel David Morales

The open science movement can benefit significantly by open and relational Christians to move towards a better world.

We are living in an exciting era in which profound digital transformations are taking place. These transformations emphasize the importance of making science open, free, and communal in matters pertaining to—amongst other things—data, software, evaluating research, and participating in knowledge generation.

Perhaps you have the mainstream idea of science as an activity carried out within elite universities and research centers, which is then passed on to big companies to transform this knowledge into technological applications, and then perhaps its commercialization. That is to say, thinking of well-defined, institutionalized intermediaries, from the beginning of the scientific research process until the general public sees the outcomes’ benefits through technological products arising from this knowledge—once they buy them.

In this common perception, talking about “open science” to establish fairer societies could sound utopian, even subversive. It might even make you think of misfit programmers operating in the shadows to hack applications, to leak government information, to violate copyright, and things like that. However, open science is becoming a highly relevant topic today, with very concrete applications.

Governments are becoming more and more aware of the importance of sharing their data (for example: censuses, migration, crime, etc.), because solutions to their most difficult problems are beyond their own political and/or management abilities. A growing number of scientists encourage open-access publications, open peer-review, and even citizen participation in discoveries. Why? Because knowledge should be for the common good—by and for everyone. Some technology companies are even betting on free and open-source software to be used—and improved by a community of programmers and users.

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all governments have opened access to data on infections in their countries for anyone who wants to explore them, and to contribute to a better statistical understanding of the pandemic. Many scientific journals have published COVID-19-related papers by open access; for example, to accelerate pharmaceutical discoveries in the fight against this disease. Technology companies have not been left behind either; for example, producing AI solutions based in free, open-source tools, such as TensorFlow, scikit-learn, etc.

Can we think of this turn to open science as a sign of the times, awaiting interpretation from a theological perspective? This question is very important, given the discussion of open science also appeals to ethics. That is to say, consideration of what we should or shouldn’t do regarding knowledge affects on how we move towards more just and flourishing societies. Just consider, as mathematician Karl-Dieter Crisman has noted, that many Christians’ practicing in open-source software already see this as having a deep synergy with their faith.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the science industry has become an excessively bureaucratic activity. The image of scientists making discoveries through their individual intellects, with financial support coming from some benefactor or their friends, is just a nostalgic past. Starting a career in science, whether in academia, government, and/or industry, requires a set of communal conditions that are rarely found all at once. One must first find a working group in which one can intellectually and socially fit. This group must have sufficient capabilities and influence—sometimes, even political influence—to regularly attract funds from agencies and/or have a sustainable business model. Finally, there must be a mechanism and resources to disclose discoveries and products to the public—because if not, it’s as if they didn’t exist.

Although there are efforts to minimize the negative effects of this bureaucratization in the private sector, there is an important lag within academia that generates critical social issues. Hierarchical pyramids, in which decisions are made by the upper divisions over the lower sections are not uncommon and, in certain cases, with political or commercial considerations in the middle. It is not, then, surprising that quite complex problems can arise because of the lack of genuine relationships between the upper and lower echelons within these hierarchical structures.

One of these problems is the increasing deterioration of mental health among academics, post-doctoral researchers, and PhD students—an issue that still is taboo and that has only recently become visible in prestigious journals, such as Nature, or popular TED Conferences. Another problem is how research is sometimes evaluated today, giving place to influence-peddling, privileges, and the increasing gap between the science that is done in rich countries and that which is tried to be done in developing countries. For the sake of achieving quality, generalized metrics are imposed on researchers, as if socioeconomic (dis)advantages with regards to science were exactly the same in all countries. This makes little sense.

To a greater or lesser extent, the open science movement seeks to address many of the above problems of science as an “ivory tower” by proposing open, relational, and deinstitutionalized renewal.

One of the crucial aspects that open science puts on the agenda is building communities.

Today within science, free open-source software is everywhere. As Richard Stallman, Founder of the Free Software Foundation, pointed out since the mid-1980s, using computers itself should be oriented to help your neighbor—that is to say, building a cooperating community, just as the sharing of recipes in cooking. In fact, this communal spirit has been the primary engine that has fueled modern computer operating systems, like GNU Linux, by the constant improvements provided by many programmers and users around the world.

Open peer review is another format that can build communities, and as an important effort to avoid reproducing bad habits in reviews when identities are hidden. This motivates constructive criticisms and can avoid conflicts of interests or racial and/or gender discrimination. Its ultimate goal can be seen as generating collaboration. It is no coincidence that academic social networks, such as ResearchGate and Academia, have made important efforts for clustering scientists among subjects of interests by question forums and peer-review sessions for preprints (i.e., pre-publication research papers).

Open data and citizen science contribute to building communities beyond the frontiers of institutions and the professional scientists themselves. Open data is available to anyone interested in doing their own research, and citizen science actively involves the general public in the generation of knowledge. As a scientist working with open data and free, open-source software for years, I love the fact that scientific discoveries can be validated solely by their results, independently of who did it, and that every-day people can collaborate in science.

These forms of communities involve relying upon self-evident ethical virtues, which cannot be ignored. However, there is also a competitive-goal-oriented dynamic that usually is in contention with ethics and important difficulties can arise that cannot be ignored either.

In free, open-source software it is common that competing visions emerge, leading to divisions—even divergences and hostility—between communities. In open peer review, nepotism or other biases can be increased when reviewers seek to reciprocate favors with highly-reputed authors or, conversely, authors could seek revenge against referees and/or journal editors if their works are rejected. For open data and citizen science there is also a risk that the scientific endeavor doesn’t attract community engagement. This is increasingly important, given that we live in a post-truth era in which conspiracy theories clash with the findings of science—at least, in the public’s opinion.

I think that open and relational thinking can provide deeper meaning to limited forms of communities operating within open science, such that Christians, involved in science as professionals or amateurs, can contribute distinctively beyond those competitive-goal-oriented dynamics.

Theologian Clark Pinnock pointed out that, if we understand the Trinity as an open and dynamic structure, God is the ultimate in community, mutuality, and sharing. Hence God has a genuine delight in creatures as social beings themselves, also inviting them to share in the richness of the divine fellowship as God’s friends. As a form in which God expresses power, we are created in love. And because of this love, God shares with us part of his power to transform our world. This is part of our Christian vocation in partnership with God.

Now, can we Christians provide a deeper understanding of the unity-in-difference inherent within open science communities—even if we are talking about rival communities? I believe so.

Firstly, we have scientific and philosophical reasons to understand reality, including ourselves, as an interconnected wholeness. Spanish philosopher, Xavier Zubiri proposes that reality is structural, being composed by “notes-of,” or notes in function of other notes, all forming a structure—and this structure is connected to other structures. That being the case, we can understand any kind of community (scientific, religious, virtual, biological, etc.) as a part of the wholeness in which individuals are “notes-of.” There is a co-dependency in which isolated communities are impossible, just as individuals cannot exist alone.

Theologian Benedikt Friedrich has suggested similarities between communally-developed source codes, through version control systems (such as GitHub), and theology. From this perspective, theological “branches” of Christianity can be seen as being “merged” but, as in the context of Protestantism, these merges need not have a “master branch” because there is no central teaching position. Nevertheless, Friedrich argues that we can understand the self-unfolding presence of the Holy Spirit, not only within each branch but also at the intersection of mutual learning, when Ecumenism is exercised between branches.

Now, in our present example, we can go even further to consider the presence of the Holy Spirit influencing the unity-in-diversity feature of any open-science community, including its intrinsic scientific and technological creativity. According to Acts 2:17, God pours out his Spirit on all kinds of people, including scientists, engineers, and technologists who work for a better world. But if the Holy Spirit is in us because of our partnership with our loving God, then we Christians are called to make contributions guided by divine love.

Working with love is the format through which Christians can distinctively contribute in this great movement of open science while, at the same time, alleviating the problems due to competing rivals.

Let us work together in love for bringing the kingdom of God!

Question: What would you think if I told you that science is experiencing a digital and community renewal, in which Christians, in partnership with God, can take an important and distinctive role?

Manuel David Morales is an astrophysicist. Enthusiastic about multidisciplinarity, he collaborates in several cutting-edge initiatives as the LIGO Supernova Group (EE.UU.), Saturdays.AI #Guadalajara (Mexico), and Centro de Ciencia y Fe (Spain), among others. He is founder and co-editor-in-chief of journal Razón y Pensamiento Cristiano []. Besides researching, Manuel enjoys reading, watching good films, and playing boardgames with his lovely wife, Esmeralda.


Exploring Freedom. A Conversation between FLOSS-Culture and Theological Practices of Freedom Benedikt Friedrich

Open Source Software and Christian Thought Karl-Dieter Crisman

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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