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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 48 - February 2006   
 A scientific conclave and public meeting
 Concerted voices on strings
 Two months flat on their backs
 The wild card of distributed production
 Action stations for in vitro
 Wolfgang Heckl’s straight talking
 The added value of mobility
 Analysis of a stalled constitution

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Bionet: exploring and debating

Bionet: exploring and debating
Is it really desirable to prolong human life with new medicines? And what about cloning (human or otherwise) and GMOs?

Before replying, you must first understand – and to understand you have to be informed. This is where Bionet comes in, an invaluable source of information for anything to do with the life sciences – a singularly sensitive subject for individuals and for society. Set up by eight European science centres, this virtual space dedicated to exploration and debate highlights the latest discoveries in biology, the new performances of biotechnologies and the future they could hold in store.  

Bionet is notably multilingual, offering no fewer than ten languages – Castilian, Catalan, Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Finnish and Swedish – and excels in its clarity. The topics covered are summed up in titles that would not be out of place on the cover of a popular magazine: "Stem cells", "Living Longer”, "Life with HIV", "Design-a-baby?, "Future Food", "Who owns your genes?". A click on the chosen subject summons a set of direct questions to help you navigate further: “What is it about?”, “How is it done?” “What is Legal”, “Rights and Wrongs” and “Find out more”. The language remains clear, concise, precise and transparent and avoids any jargon. 

If you decide to explore the subject of genes, for example, you will find explanations on heredity, DNA, chromosomes, and hereditary diseases. Interactive games also aid in obtaining a better understanding of the many aspects of an issue – to design a virtual baby, for example, you have to click on the ‘right’ spermatozoid that travels across the screen. Short films also illustrate sophisticated mechanisms, such as those of stem cells.  

For each section, you can also explore the ethical issues and compare the legislation in force in the different European countries. Thus informed, you can then test your knowledge and participate in the debate, giving your opinion and comparing it with that of people of the same nationality, sex or age – as well as the average of all the opinions received. There is no question about it: you leave Bionet all the wiser from the experience. 


When it comes to questions about science, the British site Schoolscience has many answers, especially for pupils and teachers. The former can simply click on the secondary school curriculum subjects – biology, physics, material sciences, for example – for a scrolled list of chapters subdivided into specific subjects, around 30 for health, ranging from the immune system to growth and including cigarettes and bacteria. They can then deepen and test their knowledge, aided by diagrams, photos, short films, a quiz and interactive discussions. There is also the chance to join in a debate on nuclear energy, for example, or to zoom in on a cell interior to discover chromosomes or DNA. A separate section is reserved for teachers and contains a wealth of teaching material that can be downloaded or ordered on CD-ROM. For advocates of ‘lifelong learning’, this is the ideal place to do some catching up at home. 

The Solvay public conference: an experience to be repeated…

"This public session was very interesting and encouraged me to read a number of books to understand the issues raised by contemporary physics.” “For me it was an unforgettable experience to find myself face to face with highly reputed scientists who were so good at explaining.” “The conference was of a very high level while remaining accessible to all, and was a pleasure to attend.”

The Solvay public conference: an experience to be repeated…

These are the comments of some of those who attended the public conference that followed the prestigious Solvay Physics Council (see A scientific conclave and public meeting). Of the audience, 29% were scientists, 24% students and the rest a very diverse public – 10% of whom were pensioners. The above comments were gleaned from an evaluation questionnaire sent to participants who had to register in advance via the internet. The many replies received produced a very encouraging satisfaction rating. There was particular praise for the ability of the speakers to explain the issues clearly (93% satisfaction), for the inherent interest of the presentations (90%), and for the efficient way the event was organised (86%). The latter was the result of co-operation between the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the Solvay Institutes and the European Commission. Many messages have been received urging the organisers to repeat this experience which provides yet further proof that science – even in its most abstract forms – can and must reach out to society. 

Master’s degree in science communication

© Image courtesy of Science Communication Group, Imperial College London
© Image courtesy of Science Communication Group, Imperial College London
A few years ago, the Imperial College London set up a Science Communication Group. This offers targeted postgraduate courses for those seeking a career in areas that involve communicating science and technology to a general public, such as newspaper journalists, radio and TV producers, the PR personnel of scientific institutions or companies engaged in R&D, and museum or science centre staff. The courses at Imperial College are notable for taking into account the particularities of the individual media and thus the precise needs of different communication practices. The more general option – Science Communication – is aimed at those seeking to add a scientific string to their bow, while Science Media Production is concerned with the media world in particular. A third particularly innovative course was added last October, entitled Creative Non-fiction Writing. This will be of interest to those who want to write – and this is literature rather than press reporting – on matters relating to science and technology, such as medicine, the new technologies or the environment, and about which they are presumed to possess some knowledge already.

These postgraduate courses can be completed in one year full-time or two years’ part-time study. “These courses are very hard work but students also have great fun. Graduates from our programme have been successful in securing first jobs leading to careers in the competitive world of professional communication,” explains Course Director Nick Russell. “We regard theory and practice as equally important and believe that the combined effort and excellence in both areas are necessary for success in this sector.”

Details of the various courses, which combine academic analysis with individual creative work, are available at the Imperial College site

CST 060606 – Talking science under the midnight sun

CST 060606 Logo
From 6 to 9 June, the University of Tromsø, located inside the Arctic Circle (NO), is organising a first international conference on the communication of science, coupled with an audio-visual festival. "We have already organised similar events, at Norwegian level, and this new dimension represents a major new step which both follows on from, and expands on, our previous work,” stresses Bjørn Solheim, one of the organisers. “We are aware that Europe’s economic future and cultural development depend a great deal on the knowledge of new generations in the field of science and technology.” It is to revive interest in these subjects among young people that the events are aimed in particular at teachers, students, the media, politicians and also the business world – especially high-tech SMEs – who will have the opportunity to identify the skills they need and the career opportunities open to them.

Einstein and physics spill over into 2006…

Einstein and physics spill over into 2006…
‘Einstein, l'autre regard’ (Einstein, another look) can be seen as continuing in the spirit of the festivities that marked the centenary of the ‘miraculous year’ of Albert Einstein (2005). ‘L'autre regard’ highlights the revolutionary new way this man looked at science and the world. The exhibition seeks to be fun, educational and ‘experimental’, with the organisers emphasising that their aim is not to explain such complex concepts as relativity and quantum mechanics but rather to “express the innovative nature of his way of thinking and its importance, also in our everyday lives, and to provoke a sense of wonder and a desire to investigate further…”.

The exhibition offers dramatic highlights punctuated with quieter moments for reflection. After passing through a laboratory set up as in Einstein’s day, the visitor suddenly finds himself in the ‘temposcope’ where he is plunged into the world of Einstein through a succession of images that merge on a spectacular circular screen running through 170°. After a pause to look back, with the presentation of four short articles from 1905 that overturned our notions of time, space and matter, the next stop is the thematic rooms devoted to quantas, atoms, relativity and cosmology. 

Interactivity is greatly encouraged in this section. Visitors are invited to repeat Brown’s experiment, seeing suspended crystals reacting as they are struck by atoms and atoms moving around in the course of a chemical reaction. They can also act as particle accelerators by pedalling away to use their own energy to the point of creating mass. To experience the notion of restricted relativity, they are bombarded with muons, particles that move at a speed close to that of light and that reach us from space despite the fact that, in principle, their lifetime does not permit it. 

The exhibition ends in a ‘memory area’ that evokes various aspects of this genius who is said to have been solitary, pacifist, a music lover, generous and sexist. A replica of Little Boy, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, is a reminder that, in 1939, along with the physicists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugen Wigner he co-signed a letter explaining to President Roosevelt the risks involved if Nazi Germany ever had an atomic bomb. Subsequently, this was the realisation of the Manhattan Project – in which Einstein was never involved – that culminated in the manufacture of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Site of Tour & Taxis – Brussels, until 1 May 2006

Europe’s mental health

One in four adults in the European Union suffers from a mental illness. It can take many forms – from the dysfunction linked to stress to symptoms of dementia – although anxiety and depression are the most common. The WHO estimates that depression could become the main cause of morbidity in the developed countries. 

The EU countries are affected by these illnesses to different degrees and are unequally armed against them. While mental problems are at the origin of most suicides (58 000 deaths a year), the number varies considerable from one country to another: from 44 per 100 000 inhabitants in Lithuania to 3.6 in Greece. The number of involuntary confinements to a mental hospital is 40 times higher in Finland than in Portugal. There is also a big difference in the share of national health budgets allocated to mental illness, from over 13% in Luxembourg to around 2% in Slovakia. 

Following a ministerial conference on mental health organised by the WHO in January 2005, the Commission published a Green Paper with the aim of targeting a European strategy in this field. It is also proposing to launch a platform on mental health that would look at ways of including mental health in various EU sectors and policies and developing ethical aspects such as the fundamental rights of victims of mental illness. There are also proposals on the need to provide more information, monitor trends, collect data and identify best practice.  

  • To find out more
    Green Paper – Improving the mental health of the population: Towards a strategy on mental health for the European Union - Downloadable document