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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 37 - May 2003    
 Ambitions for research
 Agriculture and the life sciences: food for thought
 Fighting microbial resistance
 An anthropologist takes stock
 The Museu de la Cičncia in Barcelona
 The digital cosmos

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Title  Children of the Enlightenment

Grazyna Skapska, professor at the Jagiellonian Institute of Sociology (Krakow, Poland), is a woman familiar with Australia and the United States, as well as Europe. Her present research, based on the experiences of post-communism, is focusing on the moral and cognitive aspects of creating modern citizenship.   In this interview, she gives her analysis of the similarities and differences in the way science is perceived in Eastern and Western Europe.  

Grazyna Skapska, lawyer and sociologist at Jagiellonian University, Krakow (Poland)
Grazyna Skapska, lawyer and sociologist at Jagiellonian University, Krakow (Poland)
On reading the results of this survey on public perceptions of science in the candidate countries compared to those   in the existing EU Member States, were you struck mainly by the similarities or the differences in the opinions expressed? 

What is surprising is the great similarity the two surveys show in terms of the level of information, interest, knowledge and, also, in the way science is regarded. Opinions are comparable on the subject of the interest in and trust of science. Similar, too, in the area of ideologies which deny the benefits of science. Generally speaking, one can conclude that the populations of the Member States and the candidate countries are children of the Europe of the Enlightenment. They see science as good, useful and neutral.

The two surveys do not show much difference either in the way people regard scientists, whether you are talking about the natural sciences or a discipline such as medicine. In both surveys, you also find the highest prestige rating going to doctors, just above scientists and engineers.

You also find the same stereotype in both regions: the image of the scientist who wields considerable power which could be dangerous to society if not used properly. Finally, both societies see the state as being the most important factor in promoting the development of science and determining scientific policy. 

On the other hand, there are differences of opinion. I am thinking in particular of the use of experimentation on animals if it can yield significant results, which is much more widely accepted in the candidate countries. On this point, the prestige of science and the trust it inspires are, in fact, much higher – the difference is 55%!   

Let us look now at the reservations expressed about science. Do you again find that opinions are comparable?

This anti-science sentiment – which is not without significance – is found in both surveys. The heritage of the Enlightenment and the utilitarian concepts of science developed in the 19th Century have been somewhat undermined by the influence of post-modern, anti-scientific ideologies, as well as by 'superstitions'. In Western and Eastern Europe, astrology enjoys a better reputation than sociology and psychology.   Surprisingly, a significant majority who express this view are the young (62% in the candidate countries). The general level of 'superstition' is slightly higher (7%) in the candidate countries than in the Member States. An analysis of the impact of post-modern ideologies on the basis of this inclusion of astrology among the sciences shows that it is particularly evident among non-believers. This could lead us to formulate the implicit hypothesis that secularism is fertile ground for their popularisation.   

Finally, do people in the candidate countries really give the impression that all these subjects concern them?   

People interviewed in the candidate countries are less interested in science and its results than those in the Member States. However, real interest, admitted less frequently but which can be detected in replies to other questions, is quite weak everywhere. In both surveys, it is sport which dominates, followed by culture (preferred in the candidate countries) and economics (more appreciated in the Member States). Overall, Europeans seem to have a very limited knowledge of science, especially when it comes to fundamental research, even if they say they have confidence in science. When you read this survey, you feel it would be a good idea to promote genuine interest in science, in the candidate countries as well as in the Member States. 

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