RTD info logoMagazine on European Research


Science gets the bird?

Thanks to the avian influenza crisis, science and the key players in the scientific community are once again squarely in the public eye, basking in the media spotlights. Just as it did with earlier crises, the public is discovering the ever-increasing significance of science and (because we are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge) its limits, as scientists cross swords over what to do. As in the past, politicians are keen to see the scholars go into the trenches: providing the clout and legitimacy of science, they help to validate the irksome protective measures that have to be imposed whilst reassuring the public. The political class regards scientists (more specifically those working in public institutions) as best placed to weigh up and spell out the implications of scientific and technological developments. They are in the best position to contend with an epidemiological threat, such as avian flu (Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2005).

However, the process means scientists find themselves getting involved in a risk-fraught balancing act. At a time when the communication of science is becoming a key priority, researchers are grappling with the practicalities of offering high-quality information, and answering the general public's questions and requests, while clearly staking out the responsibilities so as not to end up biting off more than they can chew… Becoming the "doctors of the planet", scientists run the risk of appearing as the main culprits for these science-based crises and, by implication, humanity's current and future problems. Above all, they are vulnerable to being taken to task for the failure of the treatments imposed, even when the responsibilities can be laid at other people's doors.

This situation is made all the more intricate because contemporary scientists are required to juggle with at least three roles: research agent (offering credibility), expert (moral obligation) and glory hunter. Recent hot issues in the media have underscored this: public opinion, baffled by the scientific controversy concept, fails to make a distinction between the researcher and the expert, who are often the same people. If he were alive today, the Renaissance writer François Rabelais might have written: “Science without transparency is nothing but a destruction of expert knowledge.”