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Open science should help us to question innovation – Professor Alan Irwin

Professor Alan Irwin believes open science can raise questions about what science is for, what it is leading to, and what kind of innovations we want to have. Photo courtesy of Alan Irwin
Professor Alan Irwin believes open science can raise questions about what science is for, what it is leading to, and what kind of innovations we want to have. Photo courtesy of Alan Irwin

Open science should mean that citizens have the chance to put questions to scientists and have a say on the kind of innovations that are being funded, according to Professor Alan Irwin from the Copenhagen Business School.

What examples of open science do you see happening already?

‘You could have a group of people, a community dealing with fisheries, (asking) what is happening to the fish in their local river, or when they walk through the forest they might see things and wonder whether that is connected to climate change.

‘The disconnect right now is between people facing what seem pressing and disturbing kinds of problems, and linking this to the grand enterprise called science. They wouldn’t think, “We’re asking science questions.” They just want to know what is going on. But, of course, what do people do? They start Googling, they start comparing what they see, and possibly they might connect with a university. But one concern would be that no one knows where the front door is on those institutions, where do you actually go and knock? They’re not designed for that purpose, so a lot of positive things happen where you have some kind of mediation. Something like science shops that provide a focal point where you can go and say, “This is what we are observing.”’

What are science shops?

‘The disconnect right now is between people facing what seem pressing and disturbing kinds of problems, and linking this to the grand enterprise called science.’

Professor Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School

‘There is this movement called Living Knowledge that has in one way or another been in activity since the late 1970s. It’s a really old concept. It doesn’t always get called science shops, it goes by different names. But it is precisely about mediation, and the good thing about that is often people come with an issue which they already think they know the answer to. (For example) they want to stop young people in their locality getting access to alcohol, then it turns into (a discussion about) what is happening in our community. So now you are not talking about open science anymore, you are talking about very specific encounters.

‘I want the open science discussion to raise questions about what science is for, what is it leading to, what kinds of innovation do we want. It’s not just about money, it’s about priorities – the priority a university would give to the science shop kind of activity compared to all the other things. The answer is some universities can see that but, unfortunately, often it looks like a marginal issue and not really connected up with what the university sees itself as doing.’

What would be the impact of such a dialogue between citizens and scientists?

‘Scientists sometimes find it difficult because people will ask questions that they are not used to hearing. But scientists may come away and say, “I have to admit that was quite a good point. I have to admit that I didn’t have the answer to that.” Well that is what science is about – being open to new questions. It’s about risk-taking in a way, it’s about a willingness to say, “Perhaps that will lead to a different direction or perhaps that will support the current approach.”

‘If anywhere could be progressive in these kinds of things, then Europe could be a very good place to do this. It’s about having the broad language, but also saying we are prepared to support these initiatives. It isn’t just saying, “All innovation is beneficial,” but it is actually saying we are prepared to have a sometimes difficult public discussion in different ways around these questions.

‘So that is where science in society is for me, in these encounters. Not simply being romantic about it, but if you can create the space you think, “Ok, actually, perhaps people can engage with these issues more than they can with the EU referendum in the UK or something rather general like that.” I mean these questions can actually seem quite immediate.’

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