SEASON 2 EPISODE 2

Knowledge Democracy & Open Science

In this episode we speak with Rajesh Tandon, founder of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) based in New Delhi, India, and Budd Hall, Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria in Canada. Budd and Rajesh jointly hold a UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education . They reflect on coining the concept of “knowledge democracy” and participating in the consultations related to the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science. 

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Safa  

You are listening to the Unsettling Knowledge Inequities podcast, presented by the Knowledge Equity Lab – housed at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Critical Development Studies, and SPARC – the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

Safa

In our last episode, we learnt about the multi stakeholder global consultations that have contributed to the development of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science as well as some of its key themes. In that episode one of our guests, Elearnor Haine mentioned that some of her colleagues had identified a need to think deeper about decolonizing knowledge in the open science movement. In response, she asked them to write a paper about this topic.

Today we have the opportunity to hear from two of those authors – Dr. Rajesh Tandon, founder of the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, also commonly referred to by its acronym PRIYA, based in New Delhi, India, and Budd Hall, Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria in Canada.   Budd and Rajesh are longtime friends and collaborators.  Along with two other colleagues, they wrote a paper entitled : “Open Science – A Step Towards the Decolonization of Knowledge”. 

In addition to writing this paper, they also helped organize various webinars over the past year as part of the global consultation process on the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science. 

Not only are they strong advocates for open science – they have also jointly developed a closely linked concept which they have coined as “knowledge democracy”. We’ll hear more about that further on in this episode. 

Budd and Rajesh also hold a UNESCO Chair. Now, you might be asking yourself, what is a UNESCO Chair exactly? Well, a UNESCO Chair is a partnership agreement between UNESCO and usually a team of higher education or research institutions that come together to collectively advance knowledge and practice in a particular area of interest and priority. In this case, that particular area of interest is community based research and social responsibility in higher education.

Budd  

Rajesh and I have been working together for, you know, about 45 years. And we came together because we had an interest in the knowledge which was created by ordinary people – farmers, city workers in marketplaces, people in housing estates and slums and so forth. And we realized that academic research was not giving a voice to excluded populations, marginalized populations. And so we began working in something we call participatory research. And to make a long story short, we’ve done many different things, each of us over the years, and in 2012, we were invited to launch a joint UNESCO Chair, which is shared between PRIYA in India and the University of Victoria.

Rajesh  

Yes, as Budd said, our relationship and working together on participatory research goes back more than four decades, when I was busy working mostly at the local level of empowering communities to articulate their knowledge, and to appropriate macro knowledge to advance their struggles. I had remained somewhat distant from the higher education system. But after Budd moved into the University of Victoria, we began to see the possibility of influencing the higher education system with our perspective on participatory research, and through the network of GUNI, which is a UNESCO designed institution, called Global University Network for Innovation, with a Secretariat in Barcelona, in Spain, we began to get linked to the higher education network, and focused on issues about the public role of higher education, as opposed to private gain for students and faculty, and taking a strong position of universities as public institutions serving public process. So that’s how we were encouraged and we put up this idea of a joint Chair. This is the first time UNESCO created a joint Chair, one in an academic institution, University of Victoria, in the global north – northwest, and another practitioner organization, PRIA, in the global south. And I think our partnership as co-Chair is in itself a message about the work that we have done as UNESCO Chairs.

Budd  

There are at this stage probably 700 UNESCO Chairs in various parts of the world, they all have different themes, different areas of focus. But the one common theme of all of the UNESCO Chairs is that they have a responsibility to build research capacity in the thematic area within which they work. So our goal is to build research capacity in the global south, and what we call the excluded north, in the field of community based participatory research. And we do that through a training program, we have a mentor training program, we support a global network called the Knowledge for Change Network – we do research studies, we publish books, we attend conferences, and basically engage with the international higher education community on issues of knowledge, democracy, knowledge equity, and strengthening the public side of higher education.

Rajesh  

So I’ve been very active with the Indian higher education system, and in addition to this been invited by particular countries to play a more intensive policy definition. So in some particular countries, like South Africa, we have done more work – in Colombia we have done more work – more sort of in country support, both to the colleagues in academia and practice, but also to policymakers.

Safa  

The work that Budd and Rajesh do as co-Chairs and collaborators took on a heightened importance in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, as the immediate need for global collaboration among various science traditions and knowledge holders was put under the spotlight.

Rajesh  

Because of the pandemic, and the debate going on, on science, science dissemination, access to data, global information – suddenly, public attention on science was high. And within the scientific community, there were debates going on about this treatment, that treatment, trying this, trying that – in all these discussions, obviously the conversation was happening only among scientists – and even health practitioners, frontline health workers, forget the rest of the society, nobody was talking to them about science, about what their experience was, what kind of questions they were having about the pandemic and its impact on their lives and communities. The timing was also very interesting, because UNESCO was supporting the government of India to develop its own Open Science policy. And we opened up the debate. And to my great surprise and pleasure, a large number of young scientists, young scholars got involved, from a wide range of fields, not just from epidemiology, but also from biology, from occupational health, from ecological research, even solar research, etc. And this was the first time they had ever thought of Open Science going beyond open access of data to scientists. And the debate got them so interested, that we were able to influence the government of India’s policy on Science, Technology, Innovation, and its Open Science chapter in terms of openness to society, openness to multiple sources and forms of science and knowledge. And this has since become a very important part of the conversation in the public domain. And I think, given the history of people science movement in many parts of the world here, you know, in Bangladesh, the ______ movement, historically challenged modern medicine 30, 40 years ago. And the people science movement in Kerala in India, people science movement in the Arab region, you know, these movements had begun to find a new meaning in this conversation. And for the first time, professionally trained Western scientists, coming in contact with Indigenous scholars, practitioner researchers, and people science, citizen science movements. So to that extent, I think, the debate and the conversation has opened up, and we have to take it far and wide, in many communities and societies where the conversation may not have reached in the first part, because of its limits to technology, and English language. We have to recognize that local knowledge and Indigenous science, citizen science is a local language, local idiom, and local technology. And therefore, the next stage of our effort should be to reach out to them and to bring their voices and perspectives into this movement.

Safa  

It is within this context that Budd and Rajesh became interested in organizing a series of virtual consultations to contribute to the development of the UNESCO Open Science recommendation.

Budd  

Through the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, we got a note saying that UNESCO was considering the development of a recommendation, that’s a kind of normative statement about the meaning and importance of the concept of Open Science. And they were calling for consultations and suggestions and, you know, contributions to help shape that document, which this November it will be ratified by 176 countries. So Rajesh and I thought, wow, Open Science is so close to the kinds of concepts that we’ve been developing, you know, under the the idea of knowledge democracy, that this might be a very interesting space for us to get involved. So we invited Leslie Chan, Florence Piron, Lorna Williams, to develop a concept paper, which elaborated our idea about what Open Science was. And it was a much broader concept, we really opened up the concept. And when we talk about Open Science, we’re talking about at least, at least three kinds of openness. Mostly in the field of knowledge equity, Open Science is a reference to making text and data universally available to everybody in some way. And that’s an important, that’s a very important foundational element. But what we are saying is that openness, if you’re really talking about openness of science, you have to think about science as being rooted and permeating all of society. And so community workers, women who’ve been living in abusive situations, practitioners, all kinds of people, in their day to day lives, are creating all kinds of knowledge. But their knowledge is never considered or seldom considered as science. So that’s the second openness. The third openness is what we call the openness to excluded knowledge. And within the Canadian context, what most comes to mind is the exclusion of Indigenous knowledge. But there are many other forms of knowledge around the world and here in Canada, that are also excluded. And the, you know, we started out, we thought we would do one webinar. Ha! Well, there was so much interest, so much interest, that we ended up doing it eleven. And not only that, the result of it all, was there was so much interest that a network emerged, which will help to move this agenda forward, this Open Science and the decolonization agenda forward. So that once the recommendation is approved, then people can you know, get busy putting it into action.

Safa  

As we briefly mentioned in the intro, Rajesh and Budd have also spent many years developing and elaborating on a concept they call knowledge democracy. They did this in an effort to overcome the limitations of some previous concepts in this field.

Budd  

The concept which we’ve developed and worked on quite a lot, which, you know, which we refer to as knowledge democracy, grew out of our deep awareness of the importance of knowledge as a change agent, not as a museum piece, not as something to be lectured at from, but as a living, dynamic element in society, which can, under some circumstances, lead to change, positive change. So we we had begun with thinking about how have people talked about knowledge? Well, we knew all about the knowledge economy, Peter Drucker and Hyack, and those kinds of people who said that knowledge, in fact, was driving, you know, the economies of the world. And that concept was really taken over by the market kinds of people. And you’ll see knowledge economy, governments talk about it, global industries talk about it, but it talks about knowledge society. And they started saying that there’s a democratic deficit in the concept of knowledge economy, but knowledge society is a better one. Why? Because they talk about the role of knowledge in strengthening citizen participation, in democratic governance, and so forth. And there’s no doubt the concept of knowledge, society takes us further. But what Rajesh and I realized, from our work, you know, over the years with all these people outside of academia, is that both knowledge economy and knowledge society assumed that the the existing, you know, body of knowledge, the Western European, sometimes people call it the Western Canon of knowledge was sufficient. And so neither knowledge economy nor knowledge society as concepts interrogated, whose knowledge are you talking about? So we thought, well, we need, you know, a way of thinking about knowledge that is more democratic. And so the idea of knowledge democracy, which includes the acceptance of multiple forms of knowledge, multiple ways of representing knowledge, the involvement in the arts and creativity and creating knowledge, the understanding of knowledge, as a strategic tool for political and social change, and, of course, the accessibility of knowledge to all people who need it for things in their lives. So we began working, writing about this, you know, in 2004, 2005, and we’ve written a lot over the years about it. So the concept of Open Science relates very well, if you think about Open Science and the decolonization of knowledge, and all of this, all of this can be seen within the world of knowledge, equity, knowledge, democracy, all of this work, open science, it’s all part of that, that larger, rethinking, fundamentally rethinking whose knowledge counts and how can knowledge be not just a passive, you know, kind of transmission of ideas from one generation to another, but can be an active catalyst in social change.

Rajesh  

Let me give you three examples. During the pandemic, suddenly in India, even in places like Korea and China, Indigenous knowledge about use of herbs, drinking herbal tea, like honey, lemon, herbs, all this, and it will all propagated through social media, even our high ranking medical epidemiologist were saying: oh, this this helps to build immunity. Where did this come from? This is not Voodoo science, it is just not systematized, not written up in the same way as modern medicine is written up in books on shelves. Second is water. In March when the pandemic started, March 2020, we stayed at home, wash your hand all the time. But if there’s no water to drink, how much washing can they do? So what people in the rural areas in India did was that they practiced traditional water harvesting system and they began to recycle water, water for cattle, water for agriculture, water for home use, and suddenly Indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge on water began to be talked about. And most recently now, with the confirmation of human induced climate impact all over the world, we are suddenly finding academics of climate science talking about Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous knowledge systems relating to the world of ecology, the world of natural resources, not from an economic extraction point of view, but from a cohabitation and spiritual point of view. And I am convinced that if we have to do anything meaningful about mitigating the impacts of climate changes that are upon us already, then we have to learn to respect our ecology. And in order to respect our ecology, we have to change the world view of our science. So going forward, Indigenous perspectives on climate should be a compulsory course. For anybody who wants to work on climate mitigation. It is not about zero net, zero this, zero that – but it is your fundamental relationship with the natural world around you, and how you learn from it, and how you return to it. And that perspective is very different from the western science perspective on climate.

Budd  

Let me just add one, uh, you know, one example from Victoria. We have had over the summer and the last part of the pandemic, quite a growing Tent City, you know, in many of our parks. Homeless folks driven there, because of the high cost of rent and lack of services and so forth – even our, you know, Beacon Hill Park, which is our glorious kind of Victorian Park, you know, is taken over by lots and lots of tents. So the Coalition on Homelessness, which is led by the people who are street involved, they created a research project where homeless people were the researchers, and those homeless people went around interviewing, you know, people in the tent camps, why are they there? Would they consider moving into physical housing? What type of physical housing? What do they want to avoid? And the people in the tents were much more comfortable talking to other people like themselves, then they would have been talking to university students, or some kind of hired summer job folks that are, you know, out interviewing. And that data was, you know, given to the city, and it was given to the province. And so it’s had a direct positive impact, and we’ve been able to, in fact, move, I think nearly three quarters of all of the folks that were in tents. And we’ve had similar success in working with injection drug users as researchers, and sex workers as researchers. And each of those groups of people have been able to contribute to policy change and health changes that have been good for themselves, but also good for the community.

Safa  

As these examples highlight, there are countless ways in which knowledge democracy, participatory research and people science movements are currently being used in different contexts.  In terms of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, consultations have now come to an end, the recommendation has been drafted and is scheduled to be voted on in November 2021. Budd and Rajesh have high hopes that its adoption and dissemination can be an important tool for challenging the status quo of closed systems that create barriers to access and often exclude and delegitimize non academic knowledge systems. 

Rajesh  

We are very keen that the UNESCO recommendation is approved by the General Conference in November this year. And what we hope to do as a follow up with the network is to then disseminate those recommendations beyond the formal science networks, so that practitioners who work with the idea of local knowledge, actionable, experiential knowledge, they can also understand and incorporate those recommendations in their own work. The second potential area for future work for us  – I am trying to pressurize some networks working on research on climate issues to look at the concept of knowledge in a more holistic way, given what’s happening around the world today, and the lack of seriousness of richer countries in terms of making the kind of changes that are required – but in any case, there is a growing set of people who are interested in looking at climate adaptation, climate resilience from the community led, community governed point of view. And for them understanding of Open Science would be very valuable because that can help them to legitimize within their profession, and their institutions, that UNESCO is supporting the kind of work they are doing on the ground, because for young researchers, it sometimes becomes difficult to transgress the professional boundaries set by your seniors, who may not believe in knowledge democracy and Open science, in the same way as we believe, or as UNESCO recommends.

Budd  

I’m hoping that the recommendation will give a little bit of strength to the open access, Open Science movement itself. We need that strong boost to see if we can start to weaken the hold of these, these multinational publishing companies that have so much power, they are so integrated into the lives of scholars, lives of universities, we need some kind of infrastructure that is controlled by the creators of knowledge. And it is accessible to all people – subject, of course, to you know, ethical issues around indigenous knowledge and other forms of knowledge, which should be owned by and protected by people. The second thing is, I think it’s a good platform to challenge higher education in curriculum terms. You know, what are we teaching? What are we teaching? If we believe in these concepts, these three forms of openness, let’s take a look, what kind of knowledge is represented in, you know, in the majority of our higher education teaching? You know, some people call that decolonization. But we are at a point in history, where the western knowledge monopoly is being challenged every single day. And our higher education institutions have the responsibility, not just to help the community in some kind of voluntary way, but to really come to grips with the substance, you know, the content of higher education itself. And I also hope that the recommendation could be used by community based organizations to validate their own knowledge creating capacity. They’re doing it, they’ve been doing it. But people do not recognize civil society organizations, social movements, they don’t recognize them as knowledge organizations, they recognize them as political or charitable or whatever.

Safa  

As part of his ongoing work on this topic, Rajesh is organizing a series of conversations with young scientists in India. And in those conversations, he plans to encourage them to do two specific things as a way of adopting a more pluralistic approach to science.

Rajesh  

I’m going to encourage them to talk to two sets of people. One is their grandmothers. And another is to the service providers in their household – domestic workers, drivers, gardeners, plumbers. And the question I’m going to pose to them is that: do you think they have any knowledge with which you have benefited? And the purpose of posing that question is to open their minds to the possibility that there is science outside the domain they have studied, and if open their minds right from the beginning, before they are socialized deeply into a mono-culture of science, then the diverse cultures and pluralistic perspectives of science and knowledge may flourish.

PART 4: EPISODE OUTRO

Safa  

We invite you to do the same – speak to your grandparents or service providers or community members and consider: do they have any knowledge with which you have benefited?

To learn more about the work of Rajesh and Budd on open science, knowledge democracy, the university as a public good  and community based participatory research, please visit the link to their UNESCO chair website in the show notes.

Safa

Thank you so much for tuning in. If you are provoked by what you heard today and want to dive further into these things, we invite you to join us at the Knowledge Equity Lab. Together we can fundamentally reimagine knowledge systems and build healthier relationships and communities of care that promote and enact equity at all levels. Please visit our website,  sign up for our mailing list, follow us on social media and send us a message