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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 50 - August 2006   
 Sound in body and mind...
 Science as a sign of the times
 Research and the philanthropists
 Fotis Kafatos: the model mentor
 Movement on the biofuel front
 What’s good for the goose…
 Deviance, the environment and genetics
 Alternative visions of the Euro-Mediterranean
 HD69830 and its three Neptunes

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Title  "There is plenty to communicate…"

The ‘father’ of the European Research Area – an objective that placed science and technology policy at the forefront of EU strategy – former Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin also contributed greatly to making dialogue between science and society a democratic imperative.

Philippe Busquin
Philippe Busquin – " The real job of a researcher is to seek, to discover and to understand. Communication is not necessarily his or her principal function."
Why did you make this aspect a priority of your political action during your time as Research Commissioner?

The need for communication –  not only about the European dimension of research but also about the role of science and technology  in society as a whole –  is dictated by two reasons. In setting itself the goal of creating a genuine European Research Area, the EU effected a very important shift in 2000 that, ideally, should result in a kind of ‘single market’ for science and technological development. This approach underpinned the adoption, that same year, of the famous Lisbon Strategy to make Europe one of the world’s most competitive knowledge-based economies. This objective implies a particularly vigorous effort on the research front. This was the first time the European Council had adopted such a strategy, placing research policy at the forefront in this way. So there is plenty to communicate to increase awareness of these new challenges.   

But there is more. Over the past two decades, the rapid changes operated by science and technology have effected deep changes in society, in terms of the economy, work, lifestyles and social relations. Just about everywhere in the world, and in any event very clearly in Europe, the general public, scientists and decision-makers are questioning these changes. Of course, there is nothing new about the criticism of science, and sometimes its outright rejection, even in violent terms. But, looking back, one has the feeling that, in the past, science progressed largely ‘undisturbed’ and that the feelings of society were not so important. 

Today, we have come to realise the significance of the issues we are facing as a result of these changes, such as the need for sustainable development and the ethical questions raised by the life sciences. There is also an awareness of the need to study the safety of technologies and the applications of science, heightened by the crises we have seen over these past two decades – from Chernobyl to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and including the scandal over contaminated blood or the prospect of climate change. In regard to the latter, one can note, in passing, that one of the reasons why the traditional focus of research and development on fossil fuels in the energy field is now being questioned is because science is providing knowledge that demonstrates the need for an urgent reduction in the human-induced degradation of the global environment. 

The debate on science and society is, therefore, very lively in Europe. Perhaps it influences political choices more than is the case anywhere else in the world. From a democratic point of view, that is a good thing.

But in your recent book, entitled The decline of the European scientific empire (1), you criticise the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as inadequate and unreasonable… 

The controversy over GMOs is, unfortunately, the epitome of a bad debate, even a dialogue of the deaf. The responsibility for this, no doubt, lies with the biotechnologists and, above all, multinationals who, for too long, failed to take on board the importance of the questions – some of them very legitimate – raised by progress in genetic engineering. That said, many of those leading the opposition to GMOs are locked into a mindset that rejects what is, in fact, further progress along a path long taken by humanity in its relationship with nature. Human beings have been engaged in genetic crossing for thousands of years. The crops we grow today are the fruit of hundreds of cases of hybridisation between different strains, the aim of which has always been to improve the agricultural properties of plants. Today, thanks to genetic engineering, we can do it with much greater precision and speed. The principle of precaution, which is essential, must not be confused with a dictatorial and paralysing obsession with zero risk. 

But how do we find a way out of what looks like an impasse and that now looks as if it could be reproduced in other fields, such as nanotechnologies? 

We must create the environment necessary for a genuine debate. We must develop the scientific culture of the general public and discuss openly. This is a huge programme, but it is what the Commission has embarked upon in its various activities. In this, it can play a role as catalyst by bringing together the different opinions of society throughout the EU on the subject of science and technology. These different sensitivities are revealed by the Eurobarometer surveys, for example. 

Good practices must also be exchanged to educate and, once again, create in young people an interest in the scientific culture that originated in Europe but where, paradoxically, it is on the wane. We must practise the popularisation of research by making science attractive and explaining it – which is essentially what RTD info magazine does – while not being afraid to ask the serious questions it raises. That is a whole area of the Science and Society Action Plan which was launched in 2001.

Some people take the view that the aim of the debate on science and technology is to render the progress made by research more socially acceptable. What do you say to that?

I do not like this expression much because it can be ambiguous. To say that one must ensure that the results of research are socially acceptable could mean communicating them so that they will be accepted, with the risk of presenting facts that are tinged with certain forms of persuasion – or worst still propaganda – that bias the debate. Or, conversely, the term could imply that science must be limited to that which is ‘socially acceptable’ – in the same way as one talks of the ‘politically correct’. That means stopping certain research – and I am not talking about applications here – that calls into question society’s values, such as therapeutic cloning or the use of stem cells as a reservoir for cellular regeneration. 

To this, my answer is an outright no. I am a ‘free examiner’ and I demand research that is free of any prejudice, whether revealed or not. The dynamics of knowledge is peculiar to humanity. As I believe Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights states, art and science must be free. But what about ethical control, you may say. Ethics is essential, but it cannot dictate rules that restrain the acquisition of new knowledge, at least in the fundamental sciences. It can only pronounce on the procedures for the acquisition of knowledge – in the case of clinical trials, for example – and on the use of research results. This then brings us to the realms of a democratic debate in which society must be able to make its choices.  

So science bears no responsibility for the consequences of its inventions?

I would say that no knowledge can be held responsible for the use to which it is subsequently put. Nuclear physics permitted the atom bomb and biomedical imaging. 

Do you believe the scientific community is sufficiently engaged in this debate?

I believe we are seeing a very marked development in this respect. Many scientists are now becoming involved in debates, and taking up positions that they express in the media rather than solely on ethics committees. The commitment of some individuals is sometimes exemplary. That said, the real job of a researcher is to seek, to discover and to understand. Communication is not necessarily his or her principal function, even if some individuals have a talent for it.

How do you judge the way the media present science and research?

My feeling is that media coverage of science and technology is increasing. Sometimes this builds things up too much – the latest discovery must always be seen as, in some way, sensational – or, on the contrary, it exaggerates fears and controversy, as it seeks to create suspense. Nevertheless, the media often do an excellent job in providing quality education. 

(1 ) Philippe Busquin et François Louis, Le déclin de l'empire scientifique européen, epilogue by Janez Potočnik – Ed. Luc Pire, 2005