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Science and society (1): towards a new partnership

At the dawn of the 21st century, as the economic integration of an enlarging European Union becomes a tangible reality with the introduction of the Euro, our society is faced with the challenge of finding its proper place in a world shaken by economic and political turbulence.

Examples abound to show that knowledge, in particular science, technology and innovation, are indispensable to meet this challenge. Every day, scientific and technological progress contributes new innovations essential to our quality of life and international competitiveness ("Innovation in a knowledge-driven economy", COM(2000)567, 20.09.2000). Scientific cooperation is also often an important factor in dialogue with countries outside the EU ("The international dimension of the European Research Area", COM(2001)346, 25.06.01).

However, there are indications that the immense potential of our achievements is out of step with European citizens' current needs and aspirations, such as peace, jobs, security and sustainable development of the planet.

The October 2001 Eurobarometer Survey (an opinion poll "Europeans, science and technology" was conducted at the Commission's request in the fifteen Member States between 10 May and 15 June 2001) of European attitudes to science gives a mixed picture, ranging from confidence and hope to lack of interest in scientific activities or even fears regarding some of their impacts.

80 % of Europeans believe that science will one day conquer diseases such as cancer or AIDS, and scientists enjoy a high level of public confidence, to the extent that 72% of the respondents said they would like politicians more frequently to use expert advice in making their choices. Despite these expectations and the climate of confidence, the same survey also shows that Europe's citizens do not always have a very positive perception of science and technology, and that science is remote for some sections of the population.

Industrial hazards and ethical issues are widely highlighted in the media, raising questions and reinforcing the public's desire for progress to be more closely monitored. Some people feel that science and technology are changing their lives too quickly.

Although progress has been made, too many stereotypes still keep women out of science and deprive it of the diversity sorely needed for a more harmonious contribution to political, social and economic life.

Young people, moreover, no longer find studying science and scientific careers sufficiently attractive. Together with demographic trends, this potentially affects the labour market where industry has difficulties in recruiting the engineers and scientists needed.

Europe would therefore gain by assembling in a Community framework the efforts deployed in the Member States to improve the European public's ability to assess the scientific and technological issues of the day, and to motivate them to become more involved in science.

The Commission's strategy

The Commission will focus its attention in this action plan on a selected limited number of new actions of high Community added-value designed to:

  • Promote scientific and education culture in Europe
    First of all, people must become more familiar with science and technology. It will be essential in this respect to give science and technology a higher profile in the media and education in Europe to stimulate young people's spirit of enterprise and whet their appetite for science studies and careers. This is also needed to promote dialogue between science and society, in particular through organising major events at regular intervals.

  • Bring science policies closer to citizens
    The relationship between science, technology and innovation, on the one hand, and society, on the other, must be reconsidered. Science activities need to centre around the needs and aspirations of Europe's citizens to a greater extent than at present. In particular, in future, women must be able to participate more fully in science, and science must anticipate tomorrow's issues.

  • Put responsible science at the heart of policy making
    Most policies have a scientific and technological dimension and decisions must be supported by transparent, responsible opinions based on ethical research. It is therefore necessary to strengthen the ethical basis of scientific and technological activities, to detect and assess the risks inherent in progress, and to manage them responsibly on the basis of past experience.

The activities planned under these three themes will be conducted in close cooperation with Member States and the candidate countries, and - beyond Europe - with third countries and international organisations. Numerous players will be involved: local and regional public authorities, the general public, civil society, industry, etc.

The Commission will act as a catalyst, using all the means available at Community level and especially its research policy instruments (2) (networking, accompanying measures, etc.). It is clear, however, in the context of the European Research Area that significant results can be expected only if Member States themselves make an all-out effort in a joint, coordinated approach with the Commission. In this context, the Council Resolution of 26 June 2001 calling for this action plan is addressed as much to Member States as to the Commission.

It is also important to stress that this action plan is part of a gradual process in which the monitoring of specific indicators, the assessment of the impacts of the activities adopted and the regular review of the action plan will require the active involvement of all the parties.

Finally, the future-oriented nature of the goals should not conceal the urgency of certain problems and the Commission has taken care to set sufficiently early deadlines to maintain the momentum over the next few years. The activities will be launched by the Commission as of 2002. An overview and an assessment of the first two years of the action plan will then be presented to the parties involved in 2004.

(1) For the purposes of this communication, "science" includes all public and private activities of a scientific and technological nature, including social sciences. The term "society" covers all citizens and their associations, as well as businesses and public authorities.

(2) Many of the activities in the action plan will be implemented through the Community RTD framework programmes. The Commission will ensure appropriate co-ordination between all activities relevant to science and society, including other framework programme activities and those implemented through other Community policy instruments.

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