The significance of inter-ministerial involvement in drafting Open Science policies in Africa
Link to the full episode: https://www.tcc-africa.org/category/mazungumzo-podcasts/
‘Open Science will happen whether you’re on it or not as the world moves through an era of digitization,’ affirms our guest, Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu, the Deputy- Director of the African Open Science Platform (AOSP) and a Senior Researcher from the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa in the Biotechnology Platform.
‘Open Science will happen whether you’re on it or not as the world moves through an era of digitization,’ affirms our guest, Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu, the Deputy- Director of the African Open Science Platform (AOSP) and a Senior Researcher from the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa in the Biotechnology Platform. In this episode, Dr. Mchunu shares her perspective on where Africa, and especially South Africa, falls on the shift toward the Open Science movement, the importance of stakeholder involvement from researchers, scientists, industries, and legislators down to the ordinary citizen in drafting and implementing the science and innovation policies and how Africa can position herself to actively contribute to the global scientific community while aligning this openness with the protection of the Indigenous Knowledge ecosystem.
She also shares on how the Africa Open Science Platform (AOSP) is working to mobilize the scientific community in Africa in responding to the imperatives of open science and the opportunities of the digital revolution and promoting the value and exploiting the potential of specifically Open Data.
Welcome to Mazungumzo – African Scholarly Conversations, a podcast that highlights the perspectives of various stakeholders in academia and research fields across Africa through open dialogue or ‘Mazungumzo’ on scholarly communication in Africa. We are joined by an expansive list of African policymakers, science communication specialists, innovators, and tertiary education leads who contribute to this realm of science communication.
Joy Owango: This week’s guest, is Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu, the Deputy- Director of the African Open Science Platform (AOSP). The Africa Open Science Platform (AOSP) is a platform established in 2017 with an aim to position African scientists at the cutting edge of data-intensive science by stimulating interactivity and creating opportunity through the development of efficiencies of scale, building critical mass through shared capacities, and amplifying impact through a commonality of purpose and voice.
Dr. Nokuthula is also a Senior Researcher from the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa in the Biotechnology Platform and brings a wealth of experience in academia outreach programs, the popularisation of science, and open science. A warm welcome to the programme!
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yeah, thank you. I think it would be an absolute blast to be in the podcast.
Joy Owango: Fantastic. Karibu sana! Can you tell us more a bit about yourself, your background, and how you got involved in scholarly communication?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yeah, I’m a small town girl. I’m from the coast in South Africa. We call it the playground of South Africa from its quite warm. So I started out my career in academia, more or less specializing in starting out in molecular biology. So I think molecular biology, although we didn’t think of it that way, it encompasses open science as a discipline. So from there, I moved quite a bit around in my journey. I have been a fellow in Cincinnati for quite some time, a fellow in Sweden for quite some time, and I spent almost three years establishing a genomic center in Malaysia with the Malaysian government aimed at positioning the country as the leading rubber producer. So, then I was back home, still in academia, but I thought that I wanted to be involved in after the travel to when I say close needs of the country. So that’s why I moved to the agricultural research center, which has more focused research on crops and animals. So I got involved in working on indigenous legumes trying to promote the varieties and funny enough I got into promoting cannabis in South Africa, because cannabis is legalized in South Africa, not just for medicinal purposes, but for recreational purposes. You can carry a certain amount of quantity, you can grow your own plants. But we looked at it and said that Africa’s positioning in cannabis, is sitting on a gold mine. So South Africa is estimated to be sitting close to $2 billion worth of cannabis industry, but we are not commercializing that. If you go to the Netherlands, which has advanced cannabis, actually, the popular strain is a South African strain called Durban poison. So, of course, you know our colonization history, cannabis has moved out of the country to that and because they legalized it first, they want first dibs. But my aim in the project was to try and track the biodiversity, our genetic biodiversity in Africa and the SADC region, so that we can say what do we have in the country and what is ours and what people think is theirs, but it’s actually ours. And then we can actually keep that biodiversity, the commercialization of it home. And also in the same time in South Africa, the biggest producers of cannabis is poverty-stricken old-ish women, maybe let’s say 50 to 80 years, which support families in the rural area. But they sell this maybe I would estimate ten kg back for like 200 rands, which is less than $100 to illegal trade. But because of the way the commercialization has come about, bigger industries are taking ownership instead of these old people who have been in the business. So my job was to ask the government to make centralized commercial units for these women that they can sell the economy by doing taking it away also from the illegal trade. So it’s still a passion of mine. I’m still involved in that project, although I moved away from the agriculture, so I supervised students and still committed to it.
Joy Owango: Okay, and how did you get into open science and what were initial thoughts when you first heard about it?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yes, I got involved in open science, I think I would say by luck, but it’s also by a career path where I’ve been involved in a lot of collaborations in my project. As I said, I talked about just cannabis. I’ve been working with people in Swaziland, Lesotho and in Canada to try and understand how this works. So in my career of research, I’ve been involved in this type of open sharing data type of although they were earmarked. So it was like when I first heard of it, which was funny, it was during Covid because we started on my other hat, I was wearing back in time, I was coordinating testing for Covid. So we started talking about sharing, data sharing and then this concept started taking a bit more visibility when you talk open science, because now you had an actual need that the whole world needed to do and it couldn’t be done without sharing as much information as we can. So I think I started there. So I started looking around and looking at what people were doing. It was exciting, I would say, when I started reading about it. But it’s still a bit scary on some of the challenges if it’s not done very well.
Joy Owango: What are these moments that scare you about the challenges that make you feel that if Open Science is not done well, there will be a bigger implication on the academic community?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yes. So the thing is with open science or any movement and digitalization, for example, it will happen. It doesn’t matter you want it or not on it. We’ve seen the world moving through digitalization at a fast pace. We’ve seen what the Chinese have done in digitalization and taken their country quite there. So in Africa we tended to be a bit slow on the uptake and thinking that how we do things. And then you have these differences within the continent because the continent is so big. And although we tried to think it as one, I think we need to think yes, we can work as a unit, but we are different states with different needs that should work cohesively towards achieving a common goal. How common is the goal is up for discussion, but we do have a common goal and we are neighbours. So with the open science is the same thing if we as Africans don’t set our own agenda and be cohesive about how open science happens. When I’m bringing this engagement some people which when I started thinking about proof that it would be next extraction because if you look at what is happening with a lot of African resources, it has happened with heavy metals before, it had happened with heavy metals before and then we were left behind and then it happened a little bit of our biodiversity although the Kyoto protocol came about to try and stop that. But is it really doing what it’s supposed to do? And then with open science again, sharing is our core values as Africans, but how we position ourselves and benefit from our sharing is important. That is important.
Joy Owango: Okay, I understand your concerns, but even with those concerns you’ve been actively involved in the drafting of the South African open science policy. Take us through this journey. What other challenges have you seen during this process and what impact do you see it will have on the South African academic community?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: I think again we will talk at position. Sometimes they say South Africa position of privilege and maybe Kenya is joining us in the group and Rwanda.
Joy Owango: Yes, certainly.
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: I would say it will be easier for South Africa to have an open science policy because we do have some policies that talked to it, although not directly. But it has been challenging having the draft policy. So I am thinking if South Africa is finding it that challenging, what about other countries that maybe are not in what we call inverted commerce position of privilege? So when we discuss this IP issues are one of the challenges. As I said, as we discussed before, Joy, I think it’s not then a science policy. It should be a country policy where you have this inter-ministerial discussions with trade, with people with indigenous knowledge seats, and citizenship seats. Because open science is such an overarching idea. It is not just for scientists, we think it is but it is not. It is such if it takes over, it will be have such an outreaching effect on the whole society.
Joy Owango: Okay, so it does have a ripple effect in various ministries if you’re looking at trade, commerce, even in manufacturing as well. So in that case, what you’re saying is that there should be more stakeholders beyond the science community getting involved in the conversation of open science and how it will benefit them. Is that what you’re saying?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yes, I am saying, for example, when we were discussing before we started our formal discussion, is that yes, we might look at open science as a threat to IP issues, but it is a driver of innovation. So this is the thing that needs to be balanced, the needs of IP and the needs of innovation. Again, we’ll go back to the case of Covid, the need for innovation versus the need for IP was not as high. So each country will have to balance this. I was actually just reading one of our communications from our CEO here at the NRF. He just was making different contribution by industry to the science enterprise in each country. South Africa maybe business only contributes about 40% of it. Kenya, which has seen a big growth in innovation, business contributes 70% in the science enterprise. It tells us that for the country to go, business needs to be there. It cannot be government and just pure researchers. So in order for Open Science to work, business and these IP issues needs to be taken care of.
Joy Owango: Absolutely. And how do we ensure that our institutes propagate open science and it is done correctly within the said institutes?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yeah, we just finished talking about government. I think government has a role as a driver, supporter and stimulus. However, I think universities or research institutes play a bigger role because they host the people who generate this knowledge in general. So if we can have this been propagated and been consultative to the researchers and they have a true buy in, not a stick type of thing, a more of a thorough type of thing, where they buy into the idea why they need to do it, not just societal benefit, what is the benefit to them. And then universities foster these policies that will promote engagement of researchers and knowledge contributors to the system. However, we must acknowledge that universities need to be equipped to do this, to actually foster this. And I think the work that is done by TCC and the African Association of Universities (AAU) is trying to fulfil the need. But we really need to think it’s not a given would accept which nothing is given, that they know how to implement it. As I said, it’s a big undertaking and it needs to be done with a little bit finesse.
Joy Owango: Okay. Now, the African Open Source Platform (AOSP) is housed at the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa. Tell me more about this platform and how it is promoting open science through research, data management.
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yes. So the AOSP, it is just housed by the NRF. It is actually initiated by the International Science council and with some influence from UNESCO and the DSI, which is Department of Science and Innovation in South Africa has played a founding role. So it really doesn’t belong to South Africa, but it has played quite a founding initiative. So what it aims to do is again use the Open Science and digitalization to advance the African science. That is the most important thing. And we can only do this through collaboration and mass scale that means networking. So in research data management/ CODATA, which is again a part of international science council, there’s been a big push and a big implementer of open science in Open Data pillar. But there’s been no open science as quite a big reach besides just data. So I think what we are trying to do with Open Science platform is to speak to the Open Science policy and the framework as a whole. That’s the first thing we are looking at programs that look at research data or data management, but in a program type wise, which we’re looking at climate, health, agriculture and these are the main programs of smart cities which includes a lot of digitalization. And of course with this comes capacity building programs. Because Open Science is such a data intensive process, you require this technologies or disclose. So at the same time. In order to take care of all these needs. We are establishing a data institute. AI data Institute. Not maybe physically but more virtual. Where all the universities where people who are in this business of data or digital management are all together and connected and can give and capacitate everybody in Africa how to handle and implement the Open Science research enterprise both in open access and Open Data.
Joy Owango: Is there a timeline of when we start seeing the activities roll out with AOSP such that this platform because from what you explained to me, this platform will be pertinent for the rest of the world to understand and know what is happening in the Open Science space in the continent. Is there a timeline of when these activities will be rolled out so that they are also accessible to researchers beyond the continent?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yeah. So what we are actually doing now in the continent, by end of September next month there will be a call for notes in the continent which will set out the programs. Each note can say which programs and pillar Open Science but including programming or priority or thematic area just beside just Open Science. And then we will try to incentivize those nodes that each node then take care of each area because Open Science as a whole is different for each thematic area. For Life sciences is different. For Social Sciences, it’s different. And those people need to make frameworks for their own communities in order to function properly within the open science framework. So these calls are coming up by end of September, then they will be there so that they are instituted in this nodes and Africa can carry the work. Here at the NRF, we are just more of a central coordinating body. But we feel that we should not be doing the work. It’s the researchers that should set their own agenda. And two, also a call will come out again just now for governing body for the open science platform for all Africans are welcome for nominations for this time because by next year, once we have full membership, it would only be done through membership. For this first year, we’re doing it by a nomination. So that call will come through. And then last we’ll have a big discussion on the World Science Forum to set the proper agenda for all the African countries. So if you look there, when announcement through the science granting initiatives is coming out, there will be a big stakeholder engagement at the World Science Forum on Open Science.
Joy Owango: Fantastic. So what do you think are the exciting developments on open science in Africa and what should we look out for beyond what you’ve shared with us? How does the future look? Is it optimistic? Is it cautious? What are your observations?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: I think I would say optimistic because what we are hearing, and you will agree with me, Joy, if we’re going through stakeholder engagement, the uptake of the idea and the benefit, it is clearly defined and it is well accepted within all the communities. What we are struggling with is the implementation. So we really need to think about how we implement it. And again, my take and what I think it should be each country could look where it falls is the most prioritized area of open science. Yes, policy is the first one because you talk to most of the other pillars. But do you want capacity development on digitalisation and data management? Is that what you are looking for as a country? Or maybe South Africa saying we are taking open access because we more or less happy with data. So I think each country should concentrate more on certain things that the other ones do a little bit. Because if you try to implement everything as a whole, it will be very complex. It will be very complex.
Joy Owango: Thank you so much, Dr.Mchunu. I really appreciate your time. That was a very good interview. I enjoyed every moment of it. And thank you so much for making time for our podcast.
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yeah, thank you again, Joy, for helping me. But really, I think open science is a thing to go. We just need to go ahead and give it our best
Joy Owango: It is here to stay, isn’t it?
Dr. Nokuthula Mchunu: Yes, it is.
Joy Owango: Okay, thank you. Thank you for joining us in today’s episode of Mazungumzo podcast. See you in our next episode.
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