A forum to remember
Science (and technology) surrounds us – in our vehicles, homes and offices, in our medications and food, and even the clothing we wear. It warms, feeds, entertains, transports, protects and inspires us. Scientific development, in fact, safeguards Europe’s much-valued high quality of life. But are European citizens aware of this? Do they take science for granted until, perhaps, it wanders into ethically uncharted territory?
Exploring knowledge frontiers is bound to have societal and ethical implications. To address these, public dialogue is needed in order to set the research agenda. The European Union – and its Member States – have spearheaded efforts in recent years to build a strong partnership between science, civil society and policy-making. The Science in Society Forum 2005 reviewed the success of these efforts and plotted a new course forward in the form of a ‘Charter on the Future of Science in Society’. So, the message to take home is: society needs science and science needs society. For this message to be understood by both parties, effective and honest communication is paramount to identify and build on the trust relationship between science and society.
The Science in Society Forum 2005 explored four main themes: Science, society and the Lisbon Strategy; Science, technology and democracy; Towards a culture of science communication; and Fostering diversity, inclusiveness and equality in science. It also showcased current examples of how EU funding is working to improve scientific awareness and to drive public debate and participation by different groups in society.
A series of national mirror events took place in Sweden, Italy, France, Greece, Slovenia and Austria to help set the tone and agenda for the Forum. For example, an event in Stockholm, called ‘The joys of learning’, and one in Vienna, called ‘Mapping controversies: the case of GM-food’, underscored discussions on core themes at the Forum. In addition, a special assessment of the Commission’s groundbreaking 2001 Science and Society Action Plan, a Eurobarometer survey of citizens’ attitudes towards science, and a special brochure, called Questions of science, were also prepared in close connection with the gathering.
The brochure, in particular, picks up on a number of prevailing thoughts, reminding us that a stronger scientific culture helps citizens come to terms with uncertainty – and to accept it as a condition for progress, not a threat. New arenas need to be created where organised civil society can express its views and be listened to. Diverse input makes more robust policy decisions and improves the quality of science.
Full title: Science in Society Forum, 9-11 March 2005
Acronym: S&S Forum 2005
Science in society significance
Science is essential to our prosperity, and Europe will function best if there is mutual understanding and respect between scientists and the public. This is a working rationale for EU-level policy and action – underpinned by the Science and Society Action Plan – aimed at bridging the documented gap between science and society.
According to two Eurobarometer reports, 71% of EU citizens agree that collaborative research at Union level is growing in importance, while 59% consider that the EU should spend more money on scientific research. A strong majority (64%) of Europeans think that only by applying the most advanced technologies will our economy become more competitive. The same number acknowledges the role that science and technology play in industrial development.
Three years after the launch of the Science and Society Action Plan, the Science in Society Forum 2005 gave policy-makers and other stakeholders the chance to assess progress to date and, through the resulting ‘Charter on the Future of Science in Society’, to lay the foundations for future success. According to a post-conference report and a follow-up reflection document called ‘Questions of science’, the event was a resounding success, attracting several hundred participants from more than 50 countries. The gathering provided a platform for discussing how best to capitalise on what appears to be an innate interest in science.
For this, science festivals, popular TV programmes, serious newspapers and animated teaching are all important. The Forum showed Europe has many success stories in this department. “The message was that people are keen to learn, as long as skilled communicators – including scientists – can demonstrate truthfully that science is not boring,” noted a write-up in the February 2006 issue of Euroabstracts magazine.
The Forum also stressed that a closer relationship between science and society is critical to research policy and, in particular, to achieving Europe’s Lisbon Strategy of becoming the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world. What is more, it confirmed that science must become more inclusive, engaging men and women of all ages and backgrounds, and must build trust between scientists and the general public.
It was felt that, through early and earnest public engagement (avoiding the “we know best” approach), this trust could be nurtured. However, for a culture of science communication to take root, scientists need further encouragement to communicate more openly about their work, the report suggested.