Changes underway

Bernard Schiele © Nathalie St-Pierre Bernard Schiele © Nathalie St-Pierre
© Shutterstock "The issue of climate change is the best example of the new science and society debate as, despite all the economic constraints, the environmental issue has become universal." © Shutterstock
© Shutterstock © Shutterstock

A professor at the Université du Quebec à Montréal (UQAM) and researcher at the Centre interuniversitaire sur la science et la technologie (CIRST), Bernard Schiele has published many works on the role and impact of museums and the media in disseminating information on scientific culture.(1) While in Barcelona, he redefined for our benefit the interactions between science and society.

Wherever you turn today, the term “knowledge society” is present, in political discourse and when setting out policy goals. Has the role allocated to science within the organisation of society changed? If so, what stance are people taking in facing this change?

Over recent decades the sciences have become much more complex in two ways. First, through formalisation, which is their natural development. This implies a language and a community that shares that language, coupled with a way of conceiving of reality in and through this language. Of course it takes a long time to master this. In other words, the sciences are becoming more abstract, more precise, more technical, and taking longer to assimilate. This is true in all fields.

Also, a continual process of diversification is at work. In describing this myriad of disciplines, each existing alongside the other, the French physicist and essayist Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond speaks of an “archipelago of sciences”. Given this dual development, the formulation of questions between the scientific and journalistic communities can never be easy.

A second key problem is the fact that sciences are increasingly present in our everyday lives, constantly changing our relationship to reality as, on the one hand, they are changing our environment – in particular through new technologies – and, on the other hand, they are obliging us to systematically revise the ideas we take as a basis for understanding our reality. One of the great difficulties in our relationship with the sciences stems from the fact that they are revolutionising the concepts developed during our childhood and education and through which we understand reality. We are forever caught up in extremely complex games.

What are the consequences of these difficulties for the process of communicating sciences to a wider audience?

These changes do not of course make communication between the general public and scientists any easier. I believe there will always be tensions and in particular two economic constraints. The first affects the role of sciences as a support, economic motor or element in to satisfy. In addition to these economic constraints the increasing complexity of sciences themselves is not facilitating matters. So I do not believe there are simple answers, but it is our future reality we are talking about here.

Is the job of researchers also changing?

It is true, first of all, that scientists can no longer do what they want. As the legitimacy of the role of sciences is called into question with increasing frequency, the scientific community is itself feeling the need to develop communication mechanisms with which to interact with society. This is more immediately true for young scientists who have grown up with the new media, for whom it is the everyday world, an environment in which they feel very much at home. It should really be the engine for science to be able to communicate and to listen better, in particular because it is what society demands – and rightly so. Society also observes science in order to evaluate, particularly in economic terms, the impact of scientific developments. Of course the debates could be somewhat arduous but they will also be much more sustained and in the long term more positive for many people.

Like the debates on the recent IPCC reports? Some regard them as serving a political rather than scientific purpose…

The issue of climate change is in any event the best example of the new science and society debate as, despite all the economic implications, the environmental issue has become universal. Of course there are reactionary governments that refuse to see this, for various reasons. But despite everything the debate is there, which is very constructive. Positive.

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. See also the interview with Bernard Schiele in RTD Info n° 51.


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A history of communication

Since scientific and metaphysical thinking went their separate ways in the 18th century, popularisation and science have co-existed in the propagation of knowledge, but not without generating debate.

The Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment revealed this desire to overcome obscurantism.

In the 20th century, society underwent profound changes, particularly with the development of industrialisation. It was the time of world exhibitions, anticipating the media in their role as essential supports in the mediatisation of science.

Over the past 30 years, scientific and technical discoveries created the notion of a “scientific culture”. This prepares minds for various forms of industrialisation rather than favouring the development of a reflective and critical approach, however necessary the latter may be. Science is evolving and drawing closer to society, while the science-technologyindustry linear model is being called into question. The publicising of science is also changing, in particular through culture, mediatisation and debate.


Science in Chinese society

Donghong Cheng is Executive Secretary of the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST), an NGO representing almost 200 companies.

What role do you attribute to science in society?

I believe the key challenges facing science and society to be different. While human curiosity is needed to explore possibilities, it does not always target the right things. It is therefore important for the scientific community’s efforts to achieve development and innovation to take into account the objectives of a society that wants to guarantee its own survival. For its part, society wants to base its decisions on objective elements so as to evolve in the desired direction. That said, the achievements of science and technology bring changes that make it possible to envisage new developments that affect all human beings.

In what ways are the landscapes different in Europe and China?

What separates China from Europe today is that the needs are different. The development of science and technology is necessary to manage to build a democracy and a harmonised culture for society. Europeans have need for science and technologies to help us improve our standard of living.


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