Scientists, get talking…

This is the recommendation of the European Advisory Board (EURAB), calling for scientists to engage more with the rest of society. According to this high-level, independent advisory committee created by the European Commission, the scientific community needs to progress beyond traditional science communication to a much more open style of dialogue.

Apart from eating, health care, work, entertainment and culture, how many other aspects of everyday life are being influenced and transformed by science and innovation, often at lightning speed? The huge scale of certain changes has destroyed the myth of researchers in their ivory towers. Researchers are now found in every walk of life: as advisors and experts to policy makers, as flag-bearers and expounders of corporate strategy and as stars who are increasingly in demand by the media. Often presented from the angle of the economic imperatives they impose,  scientific advances arouse doubts and misgivings among the general public concerning the validity of the societal changes they could induce and the ‘rational’ management of the risks they carry.

One-way communication

A growing concern for communication has emerged in response to public unease, with an aim that is both educational and informative. According to Maria Jepsen, chairperson of the EURAB working group that drafted this opinion(1), even though it is a necessary and constructive step forward, the greatest drawback with this movement towards the public is that it is still first and foremost a one-way discourse designed to persuade people and get them to tacitly accept the transformations that science brings. She adds that at times this discourse produces the opposite effect to the one intended, in much the same way as an overingratiating car salesperson can end up arousing more suspicion than conviction.

According to EURAB, it is this classic model of one-way science communication that needs to be reviewed. Researchers should admit that criticisms do not always stem from lack of knowledge but can express qualms about societal choices presented unilaterally as positive and necessary. “We live in a world where authorised knowledge is no longer the sole province of established experts. We are witnessing a phenomenon of Wiki-expertise, where scientific and research issues become more accessible to and discussed by wider society. Scientists would be mistaken not to engage in this debate, which goes far beyond the simple need to secure public support and confidence.”

Learning to listen

So, what new forms of societal dialogue should the scientific community engage in? First and foremost it should develop an approach of listening to and participating in the wide variety of civil initiatives that could help to resolve the problems that technological upheavals cause. Societal actors (such as patients’ associations, producer groups, trade unionists and environmental NGOs) possess ‘knowledge of the field’. Research is sure to be enriched by understanding society’s expectations, defining the problems to be resolved and analysing the ex-post impact of innovations.

EURAB urges that the new governance principles of the European Research Area should more fully reflect this change of perspective and be more innovative. In particular, it deplores the fact that the technology platforms (consultation forums to define future research and development priorities), which are built on a tripartite structure - policy makers, scientists and companies), have excluded a fourth fully entitled partner: civil society representatives. Not just accepted as passive spectators, these representatives must be involved in defining priorities. This might be a tricky exercise, but one that is certain to guarantee greater legitimacy.

Didier Buysse

  1. Maria Jepsen from Denmark is head of research at the European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education and Health and Safety (ETUI-REHS) and Professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

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