It is almost ten years since the last "Eurobarometer"
survey of European attitudes to science. The much discussed divide
between science and society does not seem to have closed much.
Throughout its history, there has always been
the sense that science is in a state of crisis. The problem is to
gauge the extent of this divide, which some see as almost total.
A survey of this kind makes it possible to get a sense of proportion
and to measure progress. We see that over the years science has
remained a fundamental institution in Europe, enjoying a high level
of confidence - much higher than politics for example, or the business
world or the media.
Scientists have a very strong image in society,
but it is an ambiguous one. Researchers possess knowledge, which
gives them considerable power. The risks associated with this
power then make the public feel it is necessary to control their
Setting aside this need for control, in what
way have attitudes changed?
Science is starting to be perceived as a kind
of Pandora's box out of which rather dubious inventions sometimes
spring. This feeling has increased over the past 15 years. Thirty
years ago, for example, French surveys showed that most people thought
science brought more good than bad, whereas today half of those
interviewed say that the good and the bad effects are about even.
That said, when asking this type of question, one must differentiate
between technology and industry. Science is only indirectly responsible
for its applications.
Take the example of BSE, where it appears that
industry is taking most of the blame. Scientists have been called
in and they will be the ones to repair the damage. Fundamental science
is going to develop reliable tests and try to understand the disease.
Crises of this kind can also strengthen science and its image, as
well as the image of public research underpinning this kind of work.
The "Eurobarometer" survey tells
us how Europeans feel about science and technology. But then what?
Who is going to use this information? And why?
This information is useful. Look at the case of
genetically modified plants. For the first time we are seeing a
technical innovation coming very fast on the heels of fundamental
research. But we are reluctant to make GMOs commercially available
quite simply because we know - through surveys - that the public
does not want them in their present form. So here we have a scientific
crisis even before there are any market sanctions or conflict between
environmental organisations, companies and governments. This is
a specific example of politicians, industry and research policy-makers
having to change strategy due to evident public resistance.
Could this resistance to genetically modified
organisms be due to a lack of information?
These surveys appear to show that information
is probably not in itself enough and that it could even have the
opposite effect to what is desired. In this respect the questions
this survey asks about GMOs reveal something rather interesting.
With the models we used previously there was a tendency to believe
that the more knowledge people have the more favourable they are
to scientific and technological progress. The reality is much more
complex. In this case we found that people interviewed could have
a high level of knowledge and still believe that biotechnologies
should be subject to more control and demand more safety studies,
Despite this particular case, it would seem
that knowledge and open-mindedness do more or less go together.
There is some 'controversy' about this. Industry
and research managers believe generally that increased knowledge
brings increased support for development. Critics, on the other
hand, believe that measures to increase knowledge serve no purpose.
The truth no doubt lies somewhere between the two. It all depends
on the scientific implications. In some cases knowledge brings approval.
In others, and this brings us back to GMOs, we have seen that in
some countries where there has been initial discussion - based on
information made available - it has not necessarily won people over.
In some key areas, providing information is not enough to convince
or rally support. That seems a perfectly healthy state of affairs
So what, then, is the argument which will ultimately
convince most people?
Utility. Supposing that the information about
genetically modified plants is true, if you then convince the public
that a particular variety is drought resistant, can be sold at a
low cost to emerging countries, and effectively reduces famine,
people will be all for it. Take the mobile phone for example. People
talk of the risk, but it has become almost indispensable.
Do you believe that the replies to questionnaires
of this kind will change when Europeans from the "new countries"
are also interviewed? We have already seen that former East Germans
do not necessarily react in the same way as those in the West?
The hypothesis is that, as these are countries
with a huge desire for industrial development and growth in consumption,
they will be enthusiastic proponents of science and technology.
This was the case in Spain, Portugal and Greece for a while. A desire
for employment and growth can sometimes outweigh worries about risk.
To some extent this is true of Finland, which developed late but
rapidly and may not yet be thinking of the risks further down the
road - damage to the environment, pollution problems, etc. - which
people in the older industrialised countries are more worried about.
These new countries could therefore strengthen a sense of optimism
and confidence in the benefits of science and technology. But that
remains to be seen.
Your survey also refers to the attitudes of
young people to science - another factor which could change in an
What is the reason for the lack of interest in
science careers in industrialised countries? You can ask young people
themselves or the public in general and compare the answers per
age group. In this survey, we took various hypotheses as our basis.
The first one was that this lack of interest is due to science's
image, which is less positive than it used to be, hence students
do not want to pursue careers that have been 'devalued'. But then
we find that science's image is no better or worse among young people
than among the public as a whole.
Another hypothesis concerns the appeal of science
studies and careers. The studies may seem long, difficult and off-putting,
even if there are acceptable professional rewards at the end. A
French survey found that 67% of school pupils and university students
consider that science lessons are not attractive enough. Teachers
themselves admit that course content has not changed for decades
and that there is little innovation in teaching methods. The result
is that children who study science at school have little desire
to pursue the subject any further.
It would seem that this is more the reason why
young people are shunning sciences. They prefer other shorter studies,
which are seen as being more fun, providing a faster route to a
career with relatively less effort. That is perhaps the attraction
of the new economy and management. Nevertheless, I believe that
today's students, in particular those I see entering university
to study human sciences, have a better grounding [in science] than
So they could study pure science?
They could indeed, but it bores them. Young people
are much more critical of the teaching they receive than they used
to be. University students judge their lecturers and are very demanding.
I believe that is what has changed the most.