European initiatives for a 'public understanding of science' are now
a clearly defined priority reflected in particular by the relaunch and
reinforcement of the 'European Science and Technology Week'. What were
your feelings when you visited CERN during 'Science Week' last November?
Philippe Busquin during his visit
to CERN during 'Week 2000'.
'Many people - and I share this view - believe it should all begin
in primary school by developing curiosity. Our teaching methods
are too concerned with the need to fill minds rather than to stimulate
Philippe Busquin : The
Physics on Stage
event held there showed remarkable creativity. It sought to focus attention
on - and develop responses to - two extremely worrying but related problems.
These are the way in which young people are losing interest in studying
science subjects, and the need to take a critical look at how an essential
science, such as physics, is being taught today. Physics on Stage
was a rewarding event. It gave young people the opportunity to discover
many fascinating concepts on the knowledge of matter in a way which was
both fun and interactive, and allowed teachers from all over Europe to
compare their teaching experiences.
A key question
was asked: at what age should scientific ideas be introduced and how?
Many people - and I share this view - believe it should all begin in primary
school by developing curiosity. Our teaching methods are too concerned
with the need to fill minds rather than to stimulate them. But school
is not everything. Parents must also be made aware of the need to stimulate
interest and, outside school, educational infrastructures, such as science
centres and museums, must be developed which also include a 'play' element.
Curiosity is what drives the acquisition of knowledge.
do you explain the worrying trend at Europe's universities in general
whereby - at a time when science and technology are playing key roles
in the global economy - young people are turning away from science subjects?
The trend seems to be linked to two causes. Not only do these subjects
seem progressively to be losing their attraction, but fewer among those
who do opt for sciences go on to enter the world of teaching and research.
Some, in fact, choose careers which have nothing to do with the knowledge
they have acquired. This is a very serious problem and we are sounding
the alarm. The future of research is already under threat from an unfavourable
demographic trend and, when this is combined with a lack of interest,
there is a risk of creating a serious gap between two generations. This
problem has been resolved in the United States by attracting researchers
from abroad - from Europe and Asia in particular.
age of science teachers in Europe is around 50, and not enough young teachers
are coming into the system. The teacher's job does not receive the recognition
it deserves. Too few resources are devoted to their ongoing training.
Financial support is inadequate. Where are the secondary school classes
where the teacher is accompanied by a lab assistant, as in my day? Pupils
must be placed in laboratory situations where they carry out experiments
and use their intuition. Science is not all theory.
not also true that science as a profession has lost its attraction?
In this global society, in which everything is seen in terms of its monetary
value and science is becoming increasingly ordinary due to its ubiquity,
the moral and social status of science as an occupation is no doubt declining.
But although it can be a motivating factor, financial success is not usually
the engine of research.
a lack of role models, such as Einstein or Marie Curie?
Perhaps. It is a pity - and worrying - that famous scientists seem limited
to the beginning of the 20th century. I do not know what young people
today would say if we asked them to name well-known scientists. I fear
some of them would cite Bill Gates and would not have heard of Crick and
Watson, who discovered DNA. But is not the identification of myths an
element of the culture? Perhaps if Harry Potter were to meet scientific
heroes in his future adventures, it would restore science to its mythical
status. Science must be shown to have a human face. It is not all about
rigour and cold calculation. Doubts, mistakes, controversy, dreams
they are all part of science too.
saying that scientific culture is not lively enough?
I do not believe that Europeans, especially young Europeans, really lack
interest in science - quite the contrary. I believe that they are increasingly
questioning the changes science is bringing to their everyday lives. The
increased rate of progress of knowledge is pushing society to the limit
of its ability to absorb. Also, some developments are calling into question
fundamental ethical principles.
must once again become an integral part of culture - which used to be
the case. Unfortunately, scientists themselves do not experience their
discipline as a culture, and they bear an enormous responsibility for
this. Society too; for example when any of your domestic appliances breaks
down, the notice warns you not to try and solve the problem yourself.
In a way this is a means of discouraging people from investigating the
tools which are all around them. There is a need to re-ignite a certain
scientific curiosity, first of all to understand the world around us -
and then to be its partner.
Cité des Sciences et de
l'Industrie - Paris - 'The desire to learn' exhibition. 'Curiosity
is what drives the acquisition of knowledge.'
the media play a different role in communicating this kind of message?
The image we give of science through various media is often misleading
or, in any event, incomplete. The cinema, for example, continues to convey
the image of the scientist as something of a Frankenstein figure, with
a devilish and frightening appearance, when science is in fact an aspect
of peace. Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians are all involved in the
scientific programmes supported by Europe in the Middle East. During the
Cold War years, European and Russian physicists continued to pool their
knowledge. These aspects are not often highlighted by the media.
At present, the public tend to associate anything scientific with mad
Yes, and unfairly so. If cows have become carnivores, it is primarily
the industrial practices which have shown too little regard for a solid
scientific approach which should be called into question. People forget
that it is the scientists who carried out painstaking research and sounded
the alarm. The same is true of climate change. It is science that is pushing
society to look at the necessary changes which must be made in the light
of this threat, the causes of which are primarily economic, industrial
and demographic. Science is often wrongly perceived as being the cause
of the problems, when in many fields it is science that is the safeguard
and society's recourse for solving its problems. There is thus a need
for a wide-ranging study and debate on science and society, and education
is part of this.
it so important to have a European dimension to this debate, which you
have made a key component of the European Research Area?
Because increasingly, due to the very existence of the Union's internal
market, it is at this level that scientific and technological developments
impact our continent. It is only by means of common regulations that we
can govern the use of biotechnologies, food safety, energy policy, and
environmental protection. This is why the debate between science and society
must be a European one which integrates all the differing opinions linked
to cultural and ideological identities - especially in terms of ethics
- which form the fabric of our continent. The mission of the European
Science and Technology Week is to shed light on this drive for greater