Young Scientists contest - Jury - What constitutes a winning project ?

The President of the Jury

During a long period scientific work followed two different directions: describing and explaining the nature of phenomena which had been observed; and searching for new ways and means to improve the quality of life, possibly generating a little profit in the process. Early scientists were scientist-philosophers who could boast that they understood everything known in the realms of philosophy, science and technology during the period in which they lived.

As time has gone on, the sum total of human knowledge has increased to such an extent that nobody can now claim to know everything there is to know. At the present time, scientific disciplines are divided into a number of different specialised areas and fields of research are extremely diverse and sharply focused. The 20th Century saw outstanding progress in our understanding of the universe around us, including what are considered to be its more mundane aspects, and in the development of new technologies. The 21st Century may also lead to a host of ground-breaking discoveries, as a result of which certain individuals may play a decisive part in shaping scientific progress. The present time, however, is one of progress in tiny steps forward, with thousands of scientists working together rather like ants, not one in which any single genius will come up with revolutionary new ideas.

Even if this means that scientists today have to exercise a little more modesty, there is no reason for despondency because each passing day reveals things hitherto unknown and opens up new questions. In particular, ever since they have known about the problems, scientists have spoken out and said that work must also focus on finding ways of counteracting the adverse effects of human activity and population growth. Today, we are called upon, as a priority, to find ways of managing the dramatic, uncontrollable consequences of what, only recently, we proudly called technological advances: global warming (which is probably due to human pollution), the ethical and economic problems related to rapid population growth, public health issues in the food industry, problems of jobs due to the use of robots in industry... These are the new challenges we must rise to : they are just as exciting as past challenges and are vital for humanity. More than ever, it is therefore necessary to stimulate and promote the resources of our imagination and creative spirit.

What is the secret of a successful project? Who would not like to know the recipe ?
What scientist has not dreamt of developing the procedure for an experiment which would radically alter the scientific landscape or call into question concepts which have been accepted as "true" for generations? If only we had a list of apparently ordinary substances which, on reacting together, would cause something new, something earth-shattering, to appear. Imagine the prospects if we had a technology bank from which you just had to make a careful choice of technologies which, when combined in the right order, would lead to something never seen before. Or what about a breathtaking computerised database which, when intelligently consulted and used, would cast a completely new light on a particular problem?

Of course, the world is not like that. An idea is often born of an intuition and it may take root when you are thinking about something completely different. The first idea leads to another and, gradually, the project takes shape. Highly productive episodes are followed by periods of profound gloom. Sometimes, a course of action which seemed to be promising turns out to lead nowhere. Sometimes, an idea which seemed to be unrealistic or without any rational foundation nevertheless leads on to exciting and unexpected developments.
So what is the recipe ?
Here is one: choose a subject which interests and inspires you (the idea must of course be an original one). Add a little curiosity and know-how, a touch of perseverance and obstinacy, some advice from specialists, a good pinch of ingenuity, a large measure of a critical mind, enthusiasm and an enterprising spirit and, above all, the best part of your imagination.

If the recipe is a good one, it will contribute to scientific and technological progress, but will also give you intellectual pleasure and personal satisfaction. There is obviously the risk of failure and disappointment. This difficulty is quickly overcome if you take the trouble to ask what caused things to go wrong and then try to find ways of remedying the situation.

So what, then, is a winning project ?
Being selected by a jury - which is always subjective - is not the most important thing.
The main thing comes at the end of the day: it is that feeling of a very legitimate personal sense of pride in having overcome untold difficulties to develop and see through an original idea and to have given the best of yourself to increase your own understanding and for the benefit of the community.

Pauline SLOSSE
12th European Union Contest for Young Scientists
September 2000, Amsterdam, The Netherlands