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Returning science to society

   

Having itself been shaped by the progress of knowledge, society has a paradoxical relationship with science, one of hope mixed with fear. An increasingly complex science remains unfamiliar and distant to the general public. What is more, young Europeans are increasingly shunning science when it comes to study options and career choices. RTD info speaks with Philippe Busquin, Member of the Commission responsible for research, for whom the reconciliation between science and society is a priority.

     
   

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?

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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 them.'

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.

But how 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.

The average 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.

Is it 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.

Are there 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.

Are you 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.

Science 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.

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Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie - Paris - 'The desire to learn' exhibition. 'Curiosity is what drives the acquisition of knowledge.'

Should 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 cow disease.
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.

Why is 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 awareness.

       
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