Introductory Remarks by Session Chair
National Research Foundation, South Africa
Institutions of higher education are not disconnected entities. They exist in a social setting and operate within a context with set values and norms specific to that social setting. Therefore issues of open access, basic sciences, and higher education cannot be addressed devoid of other factors that are intrinsically linked to the political economy and power relations in the South-North divide and of late within the growing divide between countries of the South. The questions of who owns what, who has a right to access what, and who is prepared to share what have been plaguing attempts to share resources in the various library and information resource consortia at national, regional, and international levels but even more so in developing countries.
The politics of consortia and the very complex and intricate nature of sharing knowledge in basic sciences and higher education are not new, of course. However, the digital divide between North and South countries and the financial pressures on public research institutions have made it even more complex and continue to threaten the very fabric of open access of information in the public domain, because physical access and high-level connectivity to the Internet are not the factors ensuring open access. The broader question of how much is technology a tool for development still remains.
The issues at stake involve an essentially linear process that starts with the recognition of the usefulness of information and communication technology (ICT) to implement and maintain the appropriate supporting structures (e.g., financial, technological, and political). Given this process many countries are at varying levels of implementation, with some waiting to recognize the benefits and others already significantly benefiting from ICT.
South Africa ranks quite high in countries ready for the networked world1 and compares favorably with the first world’s sophisticated ICT infrastructure. Other socioeconomic, as well as scientific and technical, world indicators show, however, that South Africa lags behind in economic development, human resource development, or readiness for the information society. The issue of access has multiple aspects and hence workable solutions will necessarily have to include all the relevant dimensions. Therefore, a distinction should be made that having high Internet connectivity and a few streets of Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Pretoria lined with gold do not necessarily reflect the abject poverty and the high levels of illiteracy still facing the critical masses in South Africa and the broader South African Development Community (SADC) region.
The reconfiguration of the higher education system that occured due to the political expediency of addressing the much-needed transformation of that system resulted in the reduction of the 36 institutions of higher education to 21. The vociferous debates in the reconfiguration of higher education institutions were mainly about institutional governance, size, and shape; very few voices on open access and the public domain in digital data and information for science were heard. The critical discourse on epistemological access was silent and still remains to be heard. The need for analytical capabilities, the need to interpret data and make critical judgment of what is relevant, and the interpretive capacities in association with the historical socio-economic context of communities form a critical link in the open-access value chain.
The complexity of the issues raised above results from the dichotomy between open access and protection of intellectual rights on the one hand, and the linking of the political and economic debates on the other. These debates caution us of the move away from a rather simplistic approach to the world’s problems that is devoid of an understanding of power relations in world states. The divide and the concomitant problems hindering the progress to open access and the public domain in digitized data and information science have been adequately covered. However, there has been relatively little evidence of sufficient progress in this regard. On the one hand, there is a need to share information, but on the other hand an inherent nature that does not want to share also exists.
The ICT revolution has brought an unprecedented flow of databases and information resources to our finger-tips. In the library and information science world we are inundated by a number of consortia. Again in South Africa there are many higher education consortia that are bringing institutions together. However, it is not an easy task to ensure that data and information of a scientific nature are shared because of the inherent nature of human beings; we are unwilling to share in some instances. The question is, if I am rich, why should I share with the poor? That has been one of the serious obstacles facing the need for information sharing.
There are several critical issues that challenge us in pursuing basic sciences in higher education. The first challenge is the representation of our higher education values. The second is paying particular effort not only to institutional access but also to assurance that epistemological access appears as well. The third issue is collaboration, not only from an economic paradigm approach but also from a humanitarian approach that will filter down to under-resourced and under-represented communities throughout the world. The fourth issue is the compartmentalization of knowledge. Do scientists engage in the consequences of their laboratory work? In South Africa the high-profile scientist Wouter Basson invented some weapons of mass destruction, which destabilized the country and created problems of acceptance of science by society as a whole. We must deal with issues that concern higher education and compromise the very scientific nature of investigation.
The Symposium on Open Access and the Public Domain in Digital Data and Information for Science is therefore not only relevant in giving expression in the convergence of the various science domains and their complimentary nature through the advent of the ICTs but also to cement ICSU’s goal of bringing together scientists worldwide in nongovernmental, international, and interdisciplinary scientific endeavour for the benefit and well-being of humanity.