Research as seen by citizens

How does the non-specialist public perceive science and its impact on society? What are their expectations of research and of Europe in this respect? A novel field survey commissioned by the European Commission and carried out in the 27 Member States, sheds light on the public's views concerning R&D. And provides Europe with ideas for future science communication ...

"It is not scientific results that worry me, but their application," says one Bulgarian participant in the qualitative public opinion poll by market research company OPTEM on behalf of DG Research(1). For most of the groups interviewed, as well as in numerous other opinion polls on the subject, science is like the language of Aesop: the best or the worst of things, depending on how it is used. As one Greek interviewee summed it up: "Science is a powerful tool that can be either beneficial or catastrophic." Research tends to be seen as positive when it is to advance medicine or the environment, but negative when it comes to the risks of genetic manipulation or GMOs, without counting the economic implications, from which science is not immune ("The problem is not research as such, but the capitalist spirit that will do anything to make a profit." - Lithuania). How do Europeans form such convictions?

Their main source of information is television, a medium that has the advantage of requiring no effort from the viewer but that nevertheless elicits mixed reactions from Europeans. Some have reservations about the depth of information television provides (Belgium, Greece); others prefer it to the major popular newspapers (United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland). In the conclusions of the different discussion groups, doubts were expressed concerning the quality of media coverage of scientific issues - in Germany and the United Kingdom (where "they only talk about it when there is a calamity"), or the Netherlands (where the information broadcast is "often refuted afterwards").

Seven thorny issues

Following this initial overview, the participants were asked to explore seven controversial subjects at the crossroads between science and society (see box). In the view of OPTEM manager, Daniel Debomy, "There is no doubt that the biggest shift in attitudes has occurred with regard to nuclear energy - a hotly debated topic for many years, especially in countries more resistant to atomic energy. Although they still had concerns, interviewees were aware of the importance and benefits of this form of energy for the atmosphere in a context of dwindling energy supplies and climate change." In Austria, people are saying: "We have no other choice but to accept nuclear energy." One Dane remarked: "I have always been against nuclear energy but now I am beginning to see it as a practical solution to a practical problem." The fact of climate change is starting to be universally accepted, leading to changes in behaviour and attitude.

The most controversial issue today is GMOs, which are greeted with widespread mistrust among Europeans because they "tamper with nature" and the processes are "against nature".

Even after reading and discussing a document explaining the potential advantages of GMOs and the risk controls in place, many participants remained doubtful and argued for the precautionary principle in an area where they believe more research is needed.

More research, please

What exactly is the research situation at present? In many countries (even the larger ones like France, Germany and the United Kingdom), a majority of those interviewed believe that national efforts are inadequate.

This impression is accompanied by a sense of injustice and of the wasteful use of scientists. "We have excellent brains in this country, but not the budget" (Italy). "The brain drain continues and our researchers achieve success in other countries" (Lithuania). The finger is pointed at scarce resources, a lack of political will and the unattractiveness of research jobs in almost every country.

What is Europe doing about it? When the interviewees were asked questions about European Union research policy, the subject was met with a blank response. Although the interviewees could cite giants like the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) or the European Space Agency (ESA), and some said they thought there were "thousands of projects but people don't know what they are" (Belgium), their information seems rather hazy. In this respect the survey doubled as an information-providing exercise . The group discussions were centred on different Commission communication documents in the field of research. According to the pollsters, when the debate began there was "a broad majority consensus in favour of European scientific research efforts and approval for boosting research actions." Europe is seen as important for pooling resources, enabling the development of large-scale projects, fostering exchanges of ideas and curbing the brain drain. "The future of the EU and Europe may be at stake if research and technological development lag behind here - job creation and the social protection system require a Union that is in the first division" (Sweden).

Promoting Europe

In the concluding session, the participants were invited to suggest useful ways for spreading the word about EU research policy. The majority of suggestions concerned the traditional media, led by television (TV news sequences or thematic broadcasts, magazines and reports on the subject, with programmes specifically devoted to Community research, or even a dedicated channel). The internet, often considered as the prerogative of the younger generation, was proposed by only a third of the groups, particularly the French, Dutch and Slovaks. The web is generally considered a potentially rich source of additional information, provided you are already informed. "Internet is a good tool for answering questions, but first you need to know what questions to ask" (Italy). Paper-based communication (flyers, brochures, magazines) was deemed to be far from obsolete, but distribution methods needed to be carefully considered: mass mailing shots, distribution in the public transport system or in public places, presentations in museums, open days at laboratories or other methods.

The conclusion is that Europe has to come to the people, wherever they may be. Why not start at the beginning? In other words at schools, often seen as the best place to provide information on science. Why not publish educational documents, especially documents combined with visits to science or research centres?

All the groups interviewed believed that, whatever the target audience, the subjects of communication should relate to people's every - day lives as closely as possible (such as health, medicine and the environment) and be presented in a concise, practical and comprehensible form, avoiding scientific jargon and institutional language. "The main point is to provide information in clear language to make it interesting for people unconnected with science" is how one participant from Latvia summed it up.

Christine Rugemer

  1. Qualitative study on the image of science and the researchpolicy of the European Union. Study conducted among thecitizens of the 27 Member States. (505KB)


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Survey methodology

In each EU member country, a group of 10 people (aged 17 to 60) were invited to debate science, research and technology.

The aim was to report on European public perceptions in these areas, to find out how much the public knows and where they obtain their information, to broach certain controversial subjects, and to gauge their feelings about national and community research policy. This very general debate moved on to discussions on seven topical issues (nuclear energy, climate change, biofuels, GMOs, stem cells, nanotechnology and animal testing). An analysis of research policies included information on EU actions, mainly in the form of an evaluation of the different means of communication (brochures, research*eu magazine, films) produced by DG Research. Finally, the interviewees were asked to comment on Commission initiatives and to suggest ways to promote a better understanding of scientific issues, making them more attractive, and increasing citizen involvement in the associated problems.