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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
 The logic of the ‘leap forward’
 Profile of the Seventh Framework Programme
 Eastern outpost of the European Research Area
 The agricultural tradition
 Birth of Europe-backed research
 Out of Africa
 Campylobacteria under the microscope
 When distant worlds meet
 Coping with life on the outside
 Researchers take centre stage

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OPINION Printable version

Science-society: a plea for transparency

In order to create a more research-friendly society, one in which research and innovation become embedded in society and which is an expression of “the capacity to aspire”, as Arjun Appadurai has called the capacity of culture to orient itself to the future and to navigate towards it (1), we have to explain what research is and how the process of research is actually carried out. We have to explain the wider societal, political, economic and cultural context in which research has the impact on society that it does and how these forces impinge and shape research. Instead of presenting spectacular products and results, we need to focus more on the processes of research, on the inherent uncertainty which is part and parcel of it, on how bottom-up and top-down approaches intersect, on the actual, and not only the idealised, role that users play and how research funding agencies work, both at national and supra-national level. We should explain how research priorities are set, since it is not Nature whispering into the ears of researchers which problem they should address next, but an intricate mixture of opportunities and incentives, of prior investments and of strategic planning mixed with subversive contingencies. But science and scientific institutions also need to open up to becoming much more aware of the expectations, contradictions and constraints that exist on the part of society, yet willing to join, without manipulating, the strengthening of the capacity to aspire. Innovation is the collective bet on a common fragile future and no side, neither science nor society, knows the secret of how to cope with its inherent uncertainties. It has to be done in some sort of alliance and with a shared sense of direction.

This would also enable us to better explain to the wider public the difference between claims or promises made on the part of researchers, depending on whether or not these claims have been peer-reviewed. How can the public get to know about these rules that play such an important part for the scientific community, noting their significance as well as their limitations, unless we explain how they actually work? And how can they know about the differences in scientific cultures, what counts as evidence, or how consensus is reached with criticism being an essential precondition for moving towards it, if nobody tells them? The list goes on and on. It may sound like tedious bean-counting to you, but the goal will have been achieved and once our audience will have understood what we actually do inside our universities and departments, inside our research councils and other funding agencies, inside the national as compared to the EU policy-making circles and inside industry and academia. And by its sheer complexity, this kind of bean-counting and the stories that evolve around it will become interesting to our audience. Moving between high-cost and low-cost realities, maybe we need to find a new market segment, that of medium-cost reality.

Helga Nowotny

President of Eurab (European Research Advisory Board of the European Commission)

(1) Appadurai, Arjun (2004), “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition”. In: Vijayendra Rao and Michael Walton (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Standford: Stanford University Press, 59-84.