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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The return of the human sciences
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image The return of the human sciences
RTD info special FP6
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  Studying the environment, health, information technologies, biology and other fields, the human and social sciences are well placed to play a key role in creating or recreating communication between decision-makers, researchers and citizens. There is also increasing recognition of the new and valuable light they can shed on research projects which are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary.
   
   

What is possible without knowledge? The most cultured countries are also the most technologically advanced. Economic growth and research activities go hand in hand and innovation is essential to improving the quality of life, whether in terms of health, the environment or creature comforts.

Vague and uncertain

Yet such progress often meets with a confused response. Many of us see innovations as neither chosen nor wanted. Our understanding of their implications and potential risks remains vague and uncertain. Their effects – in terms of employment and social habits – can seem beyond our control. What is more, the funding they receive sometimes appears disproportionate given that other aspirations – such as jobs, security, sustainable development and world peace – seem to be largely ignored.

On the one hand there are the scientists who possess knowledge and influence, and the decision-makers who exercise power. On the other, the citizens over whom such power and influence are exercised. Or at least that is how some would see it. Fortunately, the reality is less black and white. More and more people, in particular through their work and their responsibilities, are asking questions about the relationship between knowledge and power, between science and society, about the whole the notion of governance whereby decision-makers impact on the public.

Shedding new light

Efforts have already been made to answer these questions – such as by the key action on social and economic research under the Fifth Framework Programme – and a considerable body of knowledge has been built up. These experts in the human and social sciences seek to investigate social relationships, to identify the determining characteristics of a given age, place or microcosm, and to understand the meaning of identity or membership of a social group. Their work involves compiling statistics and comparing attitudes and responses.

For too long those working in these 'soft' or 'inexact' sciences were considered – save perhaps by economists studying the most concrete realities – to be working in the cultural rather than the scientific domain. Today there is growing recognition of their scientific rigour and vital contribution. Education, equality, ethics, communication, the impact of technologies, demographic change, the effects of poverty are all of concern to the social scientist.

There is also growing recognition that very often the human sciences shed new light on the approaches of the exact sciences, refining their findings. This is why multidisciplinary teams are becoming increasingly necessary and numerous.


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Women and science: correcting the balance

Gender mainstreaming, or the systematic inclusion of the 'gender' dimension, is a policy which the Commission believes is particularly necessary in the field of research. It aims, for example, to ensure women make up 40% of all researchers funded by the Union's Marie Curie fellowships. The under-representation of women in research – and the higher up the hierarchical ladder you go the fewer women you find – is analysed in the report National Policies on Women and Science in Europe. This was produced by the Helsinki Group at the Commission's request and constitutes a searching inquiry – with comparative statistics, a list of good practices, etc. – into the 'wastage of female potential' in 30 countries.
http://cordis.europa.eu/improving/women/home.htm

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GMOs and BSE: what the Europeans think

The Eurobarometer surveys have traditionally gauged European opinion on a range of subjects. The 2001 survey among 16 000 citizens of the 15 Member States concerned two topical health issues: GMOs and BSE. Foods containing GMOs were seen as dangerous by 56.5% of interviewees, with the Dutch and Portuguese having the least reservations. A very large majority (94.6%) would like the right to be able to make a well-informed choice for GMOs. As to BSE or mad cow disease, 78.3% of the persons interviewed consider it poses a threat to humans, 74% hold the agri-foodstuffs industry responsible for BSE and 44.6% admit they are insufficiently informed to draw any meaningful conclusions.
http://ec.europa.eu/research/
press/2001/pr0612en.html

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Examples of projects

Not to be missed: Ecsite
The European collaborative for science, industry & technology exhibitions – or Ecsite for short – is a network of science museums and centres from all over the world. Originally set up in Europe, it aims to facilitate the dissemination of scientific culture by arranging for exhibitions to visit various countries but also by encouraging debate on the best way to present and promote public understanding of science through the exchange of good practices. Communication presented at various European science museums and centres – in this case at the Heureka Finnish Science Centre in Vantaa (Helsinki).

http://www.ecsite.net
http://www.heureka.fi

Urban democracy: Ulysses
In a field such as the environment, how can the necessary strategies be applied in a way that citizens are going to accept? How are people going to react if they are asked to reduce car use or turn down their heating? The way forward lies in dialogue and information. Models developed by researchers as an aid to decision-making in countering the greenhouse effect (integrated evaluation models) were presented to small groups of citizens in seven European towns (Barcelona, Venice, Frankfurt, Manchester, Zurich, Athens, Stockholm). By focusing on the key issues facing the particular region, Ulysses was able to gauge feelings and reactions. This approach enables regional politicians to present a case for effective policy on sustainable development.

http://www.zit.tu-darmstadt.de/ulysses/

Increasing awareness among young people
Why are young people shunning science courses? 'The studies are not attractive enough' (59.5%), 'the subject matter is too difficult' (55%), 'not very interesting' (49.6%), 'insufficient career prospects' (42.4%)*. A number of European actions are seeking to make young people more aware of and receptive to science. European Science and Technology Week, for example, is held every November and brings a range of events in towns throughout Europe, while the EU Contest for Young Scientists awards prizes to the often very impressive research projects submitted by secondary school students throughout Europe.

* Findings of the Eurobarometer poll 'Europeans, science and technology', 2001.

http://cordis.europa.eu/scienceweek/home.htm
http://ec.europa.eu/research/
youngscientists/index2.htm

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