Mixed feelings

“Image of researchers” as seen by young Czech participants in the Researchers Night 2008 photography competition (category 1 – under 18).
“Image of researchers” as seen by young Czech participants in the Researchers Night 2008 photography competition (category 1 – under 18).
Source: Eurobaromètre
Source: Eurobaromètre
Source: Eurobaromètre
Source: Eurobaromètre

82% of young people believe that the benefits of science outweigh the disadvantages. They have a positive image of scientists – whom 8 out of 10 believe are working for the good of humanity – and find science and technology much more interesting than politics (67% compared with 43%). But this does not necessarily make them that keen to study science subjects and to take up science careers. We look more closely at a first Eurobarometer(1) survey of young Europeans’ feelings and opinions on this subject.

“If everything seems to be going so well, why is the situation so bad”, asks Anna Kamyczek-Urbanik, from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication. It is true that the young people we questioned very much approve the benefits of scientific discoveries and innovations (see graph 1). More ‘positive’ than their elders interviewed in other Eurobarometer surveys, they are even a majority (over 50%) to believe that science and technology should contribute to eradicating poverty and hunger and that technological progress creates jobs (49%). Optimism does, however, vary from one country to the next. In general the most confident are the Poles, Portuguese and Lithuanians (around 90%), while just one Dane in three shares this enthusiasm. Sceptical on the relationship between innovation and employment are majority of French and Germans, coming from high tech countries where unemployment is on the rise.

But young people are not naive. For 38% of all those interviewed, business interests and profit motives weigh heavily – too heavily – on scientific and technical choices. But here too, sensitivities differ. This suspicion beats all records in Greece (95%), while appearing to be of much less concern to the Dutch, Irish, British and Swedes.

Research for knowledge

However, a large majority (65%) of young Europeans - and this is worth noting - believe that, in any event, if the first duty of research is to serve the development of knowledge (see graph 2), its role in the economic sphere is not to be underestimated. In eight countries (Portugal and several new Member States), more than half of young people insist on this role. This viewpoint is more pronounced among young people who have studied further and among those from the cities.

Scientists can rest assured about their image. A majority of respondents (79% on average, reaching to 91% in Denmark and Portugal) believe that scientists are working for the good of humanity. The feeling that their scientific power can represent a danger is more pronounced in Mediterranean countries – with Greeks, Cypriots and Maltese running above 80%, compared with, for example, 45% in Finland. For those interviewed, the risks attached to science need to be evaluated, in particular when allocating research funding. A quarter of them also believe that citizens themselves should have more to say on this question (26%), compared with 20% who are ready to delegate these decisions to the scientific community and 18% to politicians.

Be this as it may, most young people (other than in Finland and the Netherlands) believe that far too little funding is allotted to research. The EU could be more active in providing subsidies. But in particular it should play a role of coordinating the research being undertaken in the various Member States - avoiding duplication - and bringing more weight to bear on the choices of national subsidies.

Mitigated interest

Young people most certainly have opinions about science and research, but how far are they really interested in them? They follow with greater passion (89%) what is going on in the cultural world in the broad sense of the term, cinema, music etc. Science and science and technology peg level with sport (67%), with economics and politics trailing at 44% and 43%. Keenness for sport varies also by gender (75% of boys against 59% of girls), but also as a function of country (51% of both young Britons and Swedes of both genders).

If we try to delve more deeply into interviewees’ tastes in science and technology, we find ‘a bit of everything’: ‘new inventions’, the earth and the environment, medicine and biology (a vast area grouped under the label ‘human body’). It will come as no surprise that choices vary by gender: young men are interested in the world of machinery (in particular innovations in ICT), young women in the life sciences. Is this significant? The universe is no longer the subject of dreams and no longer turns people on (at best 41% of Lithuanians, at worst 13% of Poles).

On the subject of risk

Knowledge and personal interests go hand in hand. The large majority of young people know something about mobile telephony, computers, nuclear energy and GMOs (two technologies that they distrust) and also about embryo research. They know much less about nanotechnologies, and a quarter of those surveyed said that had never heard of brain research. When one talks about it with them, they are fascinated, and consider research in this area to be important and potentially beneficial.

One topic that the survey looked at more closely was health hazards. This is a subject which apparently leaves few people indifferent (see graph 3). 89% of those interviewed are distrustful of air pollution by cars, new epidemics, the denaturing of water by pesticides, the danger of living in the proximity of a chemicals plant etc. Only the use of mobile phones, an essential tool for this age group, is viewed with less mistrust. As a general rule, these fears are more marked in southern and eastern Europe, and less perceptible in high-tech Finland.

Studies and professions

One might expect science and research to be seen as good avenues for the more adventurous. But this does not lead young Europeans to want to study or work in a scientific field – though with a little more enthusiasm in the new Member States (see graph 4). Why? “For them, maths is often the least attractive area. This is one reason why 56% of them say that they have already chosen their profession, and 52% of them add that this type of profession does not interest them”, explains Anna Kamyczek-Urbanik. “The problem starts therefore before university. Becoming a scientist or engineer requires a solid schooling in maths and science, and we know that young people are put off by stereotypes which present science as difficult and/or boring. These stereotypes die hard. 26% of interviewees believed that they lacked the capacity for a profession of this type. This is why better communication is necessary here. This could be simply to say ‘yes, we can’.”

In the meantime, 19% of these young people opt for social or human sciences, 13% take biology or medicine, 11% engineering and natural sciences, while 10% choose statistics and 8% maths. Young women prefer natural sciences or maths, and see themselves working in the health sector, teaching or doing research. A majority of interviewees agreed also on the advantages of a better mix of the sexes in science, arguing (46%) that girls should be encouraged to opt for science subjects.

A mixed view of the future

And how do we see the future? The picture young Europeans paint is full of half-tones. On the bright side, the most important progress in their eyes is that which will improve communication between people – this is at least what comes out of the general spirit, and more strongly among the youngest respondents, with peaks of optimism among the Finns (84%) and much less certainty from the Cypriots and Greeks (24% of the latter believing the communication will, on the contrary, significantly deteriorate).

On the dark side, they point to certain changes which will weigh more and more heavily on their daily lives – in particular damage to health for various reasons – food and water quality, pollution in the cities;57% of young people – a relative majority – think that solutions to combat greenhouse gas and global warming are imperative, and that they will produce at times disagreeable behavioural changes. A quarter of Estonians, Dutch and Danes see the solution to global warming in technological advances (compared with just 8% of French and Greeks). When all is said and done, girls are slightly more pessimistic (realistic?) than boys. And only a minority of respondents (4 boys out of 10 and 3 girls out of 10) believe that, overall, science is going to make life healthier and easier.

Christine Rugemer

  1. Young people and science, 2008,


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Instructions for use

The Eurobarometer survey on ‘young people and science’, carried out by Gallup for the Commission, covered 25 000 people aged between 15 and 25 from the 27 Member States of the Union. Telephone interviews, supplemented by 300 face-to-face interviews, were undertaken between 9 and 13 September 2008. As in each Eurobarometer survey, socio-democratic features (age groups, gender, educational level, urban or rural environment) were carefully balanced out. The objective was to understand how far young people are attracted by science and technology and to learn of any professional projects of theirs in these fields. The study was divided into major themes: interest in scientific and technical information in young people’s news hierarchies; opinions about science and scientists, as well as about research and the role that the EU can play in it; awarenss of and interest in innovations; assessment of (present and future) health risks; study and professional projects, visions of the future.


An experience of direct democracy

The French association Les petits débrouillards, set up between April and October 2008, brought together 27 panels of young people (age 15 to 25) in each of the Member States of the EU. The objective was to sensitise young people to the building of Knowledge Europe, in particular by meeting with science players, as well as the discussion workshops at the Poitiers (FR) Futuroscope. The organisers were, in their words, ‘taking a bet on young people's intelligence’. These discussions ended in a series of recommendations addressed to the EU’s decision-makers, and handed to Valérie Pécresse, French Minister for Higher Education and Research, in the presence of European Commissioner Janez Potočnick.

One of the essential messages given by participants was that there is “no lack of interest in science or in scientific careers”, but a lack of motivation owing to the excessively long years of study, plus a lack of certainty as to professional outcome and often unattractive pay. They constantly insisted on the need for a ‘drastic renewal’ of school and university teaching methods.

The recommendations which were presented tackle a series of political, scientific, educational, cultural, social and economic aspects. At the teaching level, these young Europeans would in particular like educational systems to improve the dissemination of knowledge of the Union, for English to become a compulsory language and for greater account to be taken of non-formal educational systems. They also suggested creating an annual event with a “European science capital”, just as there is already a European culture capital. They would also like to see greater equality in education, in particular through many more new support mechanisms and the promotion of the free software standard.

In any event a consensus appears to exist at European level - and not just among young people - on the need to introduce new and more lively ways of teaching science, which encourage experimentation and are open to more interactive possibilities, like those on offer in many science centres.