In June 2017 Louise Bezuidenhout and Ola Karrar met at the CODATA/RDA Research Data Management summer school in Trieste, Italy. Louise is a research fellow from the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (Oxford), and Ola a lecturer in statistics at the University of Khartoum (Sudan). Louise had just presented a lecture on Open Science, and Ola approached her to ask some probing questions about the limits of Open Science under international sanctions. Open Science is a worldwide movement to remove barriers to data, publications, software and educational resources. It enhances the availability of research resources and enhances collaboration of researchers around the world.
How, Ola asked, can Sudanese academics participate in the Open Science movement when international financial sanctions have been in place since 1993? These sanctions prohibited access to information, availability of research equipment and ICTs, and communication channels with the global academic community. This meant that Sudanese academics faced significant barriers when trying to access the seemingly open resources of Open Science online.
Ola’s compelling description of academia in Sudan, and their shared interest in Open Science and research capacity building in Africa, highlighted that something needed to be done. There needed to be more discussion on the impact of sanctions on academia. One of the biggest hurdles to starting such discussions was a lack of data on the extent of the problem. In recognition of this, they decided to conduct a survey of Sudanese academics to find out the extent to which they felt their work was impacted by international sanctions. To fund this collaboration Ola and Louise received an AfOx travel grant. This grant funded the roll-out of the survey, as well as reciprocal visits between Sudan and the UK.
In 2018 Ola visited Oxford to conduct the analysis of the data and to plan the papers, while later that year Louise visited Sudan to participate in a series of open lectures on the project to students, academics, government members and the general public. The findings of the survey were very well-received and have subsequently been presented at a number of international conferences (such as the International Data Week), stimulating considerable discussion. One paper has already been published and a number of others are underway. Excitingly, in 2019 the findings from the survey formed the basis of a subsequent GCRF grant to extend the study to other countries under sanctions.
What became evident from the survey was the pernicious influence of sanctions on academic systems. Isolating academics from research materials and funding provides challenges, but the additional burden of being isolated from the global research community - both offline and online - has long-reaching implications. Urgent need for creative solutions to support Sudanese academics in overcoming this legacy, and a sustained period of engagement is required to identify key skill, resource and capacity shortages. This will ensure that efforts to (re)build academic capacity within Sudan are targeted and effective. In particular, this will help Sudanese academics to engage with the exciting opportunities that the Open Science movement offers.
Both Ola and Louise are very grateful for the opportunity that the AfOx travel grant made possible. Both are committed to not only continuing the work on sanctions, but also to working together on future projects. The AfOx grant has truly been the start of a life-long collaboration!