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COMMUNICATING SCIENCE

Euroscience days

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Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore
Euroscience Open Forum, the major biennial meeting at which the many “voices of European science” make themselves heard, was held from 15 to 19 July at the Deutsches Museum in Munich (DE). The five-day event included a packed programme of stimulating lectures, dialogues and debates, many of which were devoted to the communication of research. On the media front, for example, Andrew Moore, Manager of the European Molecular Biology Organisation’s (EMBO) Science and Society programme, enlightened young scientists on the day-to-day reality of journalism. The drafting of texts, interviews, role plays and the simulation of debates were all on the agenda. This biologist, who is as much at home in a laboratory as a press room, likes to say that he has been lucky enough “to explore science through the media and the media through science”. Always a realist, he notes that “the media are a business and what sells does so because it is new and arouses interest and not because of the actual information it provides”.

He believes that the onus is on scientists to be proactive and imaginative in the way they publicise their research, given that the media can reach millions of people with just a few powerful words or pictures. “This can be either an advantage or a disadvantage for any subject, including science.” One of Moore’s aims is to explain to researchers the mechanisms of a profession that may seem to be the very antithesis of their own, so that they can understand and use it to better effect.

Science and fiction
Stefan Klein © Sven Paustian
Stefan Klein
© Sven Paustian
Using the imagination is another way of ‘talking science’. The physicist Stefan Klein, author of works including The science of happiness, in which he unravels the complex biochemistry of the emotions and the mysteries of the neurosciences, gave a workshop entitled ‘The storytellers of  science, architects of culture?’.

“Societies tend to regard science as a source of economic wealth when, in fact, it is a source of cultural richness,” he explains. He also stresses that scientists wrongly view themselves as outside of culture at a time when contemporary science seems “close to answering many questions that traditionally lie in the realms of myth, poetry and philosophy”.

The Munich meeting also brought together a range of European artists, including writers and filmmakers with the aim of creating a network to give impetus to this cultural dimension of science, in particular through debates on science, society and culture. Among the participants was Carl Djerassi, the ‘father’ of the contraceptive pill who decided to turn to literature in middle age. Djerassi has a passion for the theatre for which he has been writing ‘scientific plays’ since 1997 (An immaculate misconception, translated into 11 languages, has been performed on nearly every continent). His first essay on the subject, Sex in an age of mechanical reproduction, also published in French, German, Chinese and Italian, ensured the success of the formula. Other renowned figures also attended the event, such as the mathematicians John L. Casti and Tor Nørretranders.

Health – knowing where to click

Health – knowing where to click
What is a generic medicine? Why has obesity reached such proportions? How do you construct a low-cholesterol diet? Where do you go to discuss a drug or drink problem? Who should be vaccinated against flu? In 2005, 130 million European citizens searched the World Wide Web for answers to a multitude of such health-related questions. But the problem lies in what to trust among the mass of sometimes contradictory information available at websites that may or may not be reliable, up to date and without commercial bias. It is to underwrite quality information that the Commission has just launched the Health-EU portal. The site is organised under six headings: ‘My health’, ‘My lifestyle’, ‘My environment’, ‘Health problems’, ‘Care for me’, ‘Health in the Union’. These cover almost 50 subjects, including bioterrorism, health insurance, road safety and the employment of disabled people.

In addition to its interest for the general public, the site also seeks to be a valuable tool for scientists, health professionals and politicians interested in progress in research and seeking reliable links to specialist sites.

Health-EU is available in all the official languages of the EU.

The Wikipedia story

The Wikipedia story
Who doesn’t know Wikipedia? At its basis lies ultrafast software, known as wiki (meaning ‘fast’ in Hawaiian) that allows users to enter a site and create or edit a page. This is how this virtual encyclopaedia of over 4 million articles in 229 languages – written not by experts but by anonymous ‘connoisseurs’ – has operated for the past five years. It was the American businessman Jimmy Wales who came up with this rather risky utopia that combines total freedom of expression with the very opposite as, in principle, it is possible to transform or delete what has just been written. This naturally begs the question of how to guarantee the reliability of such a system. In principle, it works automatically in the sense that, as soon as doubtful information appears, it is deleted by another user who knows better. The unpaid volunteers who have built this giant project first have to register, using a pseudonym if desired. They also undertake to respect the rule of a “neutral point of view” and “to try and present ideas and facts in such a way that supporters and detractors can agree”.

It has, of course, been difficult to rule out the occasional aberration. The most famous example was perhaps the ‘John Seigenthaler affair’ concerning this American journalist who one day discovered that he had apparently lived in exile in the USSR for 13 years because he was suspected of being involved in the Kennedy assassination. The joker was soon discovered, the truth restored and Wales decided to tighten things up a bit. Today, any new pages or changes are placed in quarantine and checked by the New Pages Patrols before being released on the World Wide Web. A classification into three categories was also introduced recently: the traditional ‘free entry’ texts that anyone can edit, the ‘semi-protected’ articles that registered members can change, and the ‘protected’ items that cannot be changed.

At first, the encyclopaedia was financed by Jimmy Wales himself, thanks to his skill at playing the stock markets. But he later set up a foundation, fuelled by donations, which operates with a budget of €800 000. For all his achievements, Wales made it into Time Magazine’s top 100 people of the year but in the scientists and thinkers category. 

Results and how to use them

Researchers are under pressure to communicate and reveal their research results. But they must also know how to choose ‘the right moment’ and not reveal too soon elements that will not be properly understood and that could risk arousing false hopes. A report published by the Royal Society (the UK’s academy of sciences) analyses the effective strategies and the potential implications of an untimely communication.

Exhibition – Biometrics or the body as identity

Biometrics
© CSI

Drawing of an iris © CSI

The pattern of the iris is specific to each individual. To record it, the eye must be placed very precisely in front an infra-red camera.
© CSI
First measure from the floor to your hip and then from the floor to your knee. The average ratio between the two is 1.86. Visitors to the Biometrics exhibition can check that they are ‘among the norm’ using the available rulers and calculators. They can also record their fingerprints and face (using a pseudonym) or test the biometric techniques for iris and signature recognition. By the end of their visit, they will have gained a good idea of the many possibilities offered by biometrics, or this “coming together of digital techniques, biological data on the human body and society’s need to identify people easily but certainly”.

The exhibition aims to answer four key questions: Why biometrics? For who? Is it an innovation? Does it provide absolute security? It does so by providing examples of biometric techniques in practice, such as the identification of bodies after the December 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia, checks on the distribution of methadone doses in Australia, the issuing of pensions in rural areas of South Africa, home care for the elderly in Kyoto, and monitoring international migration using the EU’s centralised Eurodac file that contains the fingerprints of all asylum-seekers in Europe. 

The Biometrics organisers also see the exhibition as a contribution to the public debate on a technology that both reassures and raises fears. “The fear of society becoming a police state and fear of huge databases is coupled with a certain enthusiasm for a technology destined to protect citizens and facilitate their everyday life.”