By Donrich Thaldar
Within South Africa’s science policy landscape, two recent proposals, the Draft National Open Science Policy and the Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud, highlight an ideological struggle between individual freedom and central control by the state.
This article discusses both of these proposals, the strengths and weaknesses of their approaches, and their concordance with broader social and political goals in South Africa.
The Draft National Open Science Policy: A Push for Openness
Aligned with the global philosophy of open science, South Africa’s Draft National Open Science Policy serves as an ambitious template for what could be a transformative agenda. Grounded in principles advocating for barrier-free access to scientific knowledge, this draft policy aims to make scientific data generated by the country’s public research institutions available to the world. It recognizes that there would be legitimate reasons to restrict the openness of certain kinds of data, such as personal data and data that are part of proprietary databases. Its approach is encapsulated in the pragmatic phrase “as open as possible, as closed as necessary.” Importantly, instead of threatening with penalties for non-cooperation, the Draft National Open Science Policy proposes incentives for cooperation.
The Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud: A Contrarian View
In stark contrast, the Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud, though ostensibly designed to provide access to data, leans towards a higher level of state control over all forms of data, disrupting existing legal frameworks. It proposes that the South African state should own all data generated in the country, imagining the government as a benevolent custodian that will grant access to deserving recipients. The government’s main concern is that potentially valuable data get exported en masse and are used by foreign entities without reciprocal exchange in value. This, of course, is reminiscent of old colonial exploitation. Accordingly, the radical idea of state ownership of all data generated in South Africa should be seen within its historical context. However, it embodies what might be seen as the “enemy” of open science, utilizing the levers of power to centralize control of all data in the state and hence restrict the free sharing of data.
Ideological Underpinnings: Piecemeal vs. Utopian Approaches
The dichotomy between these draft policies echoes Karl Popper’s discussion of “piecemeal social engineering” versus “utopian social engineering” in his seminal work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” According to Popper, an open society is best served by small, incremental changes that can be modified or reversed based on empirical outcomes, rather than sweeping changes imposed from an ideological standpoint. The Draft National Open Science Policy aligns more closely with Popper’s notion of “piecemeal engineering,” advocating for incremental changes within frameworks. The Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud, however, reflects a more “utopian” perspective, advocating for a radical overhaul without providing for adaptive, error-correcting mechanisms.
Which Way Forward for an Open Society?
So, which of these approaches is more consonant with the values of an open society that South Africa aspires to be? The apparent answer is the Draft National Open Science Policy. It respects existing legal frameworks in respect of data, while facilitating a cultural shift towards the democratization of scientific knowledge. It also includes an official body—the Open Science Advisory Council—to oversee and incentivize this transition. Conversely, the Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud, by advocating for complete state control over data, not only imposes undue constraints on individual freedoms, but also risks inefficiency and bureaucratic lethargy.
The concern with data neo-colonialism does not require the radical step of data expropriation by the state. Instead, it can be addressed in various innovative, incremental ways that leave space for correction along the road. For example, in the health research space, this can include the establishment of an independent body of scientists, lawyers, and ethicists to serve as a national clearing house for international collaborative projects with the mandate to ensure that if health research data (clinical, phenome, or genomic data) leave the country, there is fair benefit sharing—benefit sharing of a kind that advances the public interest in South Africa, such as developing research capacity in the private sector.
As South Africa grapples with these divergent policy routes, the need for a balanced, incremental approach that aligns with the principles of an open society is increasingly apparent. Fostering an environment conducive to scientific progress requires not just opening the gates of knowledge in a responsible way, but also ensuring that they remain open. While placing a friendly guard at the gate may be a reasonable and measured response to data neo-colonialism, confiscating all the goods potentially heading for the gate seems to be an overreaction.
For a more complete analysis of Draft National Open Science Policy, I invite you to read this article.