Young Scientists Contest


The 15th European Union Contest for Young Scientists

Speech given at the award ceremony by Mr Achilleas Mitsos,
Director-General for Research, European Commission

Budapest, Hungary 25th September 2003


Minister Balint Magyar [Minister of Education],

Minister Istvan Csillag [Minister of Economy],

President of the Jury, Dr Merbold,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

And, you the

Young scientists

It is a great please for me to address you at the awards ceremony for the 15th European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

In particular, I would like to say a few words directly to the "Young Scientists" who are here today: something about the event itself; about the importance of science to our societies; and also about the way that careers in scientific research are developing.

Firstly, as Director General for Research at the European Commission, I am often asked about the sorts of things that we do at the Commission to support scientific research in Europe - and why we do it!

Why we do it is simple: we want to ensure that Europe continues to grow not just in terms of its economic development, but also in terms of its social development – the quality of life, the well being of all of its citizens, and the promotion of equality of opportunity and social cohesion.

In all of these areas, scientific research plays a key role.

To explain how, or what we do to support research in Europe, however, would take a little longer! But in summary it is not that complicated either:

  • At the Commission, we look at the sorts of joint research projects that can be better accomplished – or, indeed, can only be accomplished - through collaboration of teams of scientists from across Europe.

  • We look at the sorts of equipment and infrastructure needed.

  • And we look at the people – the researchers, scientists and the technologists - who actually do the work!

This is last point is very important because it concerns the scientists themselves and our need – society’s need - for scientists.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to think of an area of our daily lives that has not benefited from the scientific breakthroughs and technological advances made by ordinary men and women - who also happen to be enthusiastic, dedicated and inspired scientists.

Whereas science and the discovery of new knowledge can at times appear mysterious, there is, however, nothing mysterious about becoming a scientist.

It’s about walking around with your eyes open; asking questions; challenging ideas; seeing what others have seen – but thinking what no-one has thought before! Yes it is a sort of non-conformity!

The Contest

This is really the point of the European Union Contest for Young Scientist that has brought you, the Young Scientists, here this week to Budapest. It is not just about winning, but it is a contest and there will be winners.

It is more about learning how science is done both through your individual or team efforts, and by seeing what others have done to rise to the scientific challenges that they have set themselves.

Team effort is important. There is room and a place for individual effort, but science is essentially a collaborative adventure that cuts across national boundaries. It involves teams of researchers, sometimes competing but always contributing towards improving our understanding of the world in which we live.

In Europe we have such a rich and diverse mixture of experience and achievement especially in the sciences – and I include also the social sciences.

The European Union through the research programmes that the Commission manages is helping us to reinforce the exchanges of experience and knowledge between its members. It does this in a number of ways but ultimate it always involves collaboration across Europe.

And the Contest, itself, highlights many of these facets.

Science and society

Let me now turn to the role of science in our modern societies. I have already stressed the importance of science to our daily lives. This importance is evident both in terms of the potential of science to bring about significant change, and in terms of the countless number of areas in which scientific techniques are being applied.

Examples include: medicines and healthcare; transport; communications and computing technologies; safety; biotechnology;

This ability of science to affect our lives means that science also affects the development of the societies in which we live. Science has to be used responsibly: it must not be imposed on society but must take into account the real needs, aspirations and concerns of ordinary people.

Doing science can be fun: and I am sure that you have all experienced this in the work that you have presented at this Contest.

It is not really that different for professional scientists. There is little that can match the pure intellectual challenge and satisfaction of pursuing a particular line of research or technological development. But this must be tempered with a clear understanding of how others might perceive the work or its possible outcomes.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing scientists today: the world is not a laboratory - we are living in it! And whatever the field of human endeavour, we have to behave responsibly – and science is no exception.

This is why the European Commission research programmes (and the national programmes of EU Member states) are combining support for science with the need for better communication.

This is a process of dialogue in which issues such as safety, environmental impact, ethical acceptability, risk and uncertainty are debated with all sectors of our society. This is about changing the direction of research agenda to avoid future problems.

Careers in Science

So does all this affect careers in science? Yes it does – but only in a positive sense!

Old stereotypes of white-coated scientists – usually men - immersed in some obscure work in some back-room laboratory have done much to harm the image of scientists and have reinforced impressions that scientists are isolated from the rest of society.

But sometimes the scientists themselves are to blame – being more comfortable hiding behind the complexities of their subjects rather than explaining in simpler terms what they do!

It is not surprising, therefore, that today more and more young people believe that science careers are unattractive. It is also not surprising that it has become harder to relate research directly to the high technology goods and services that we use and need.

But changes are starting to take place in the way that science is being done to highlight the relevance of science to society and also involve society more closely in deciding how science is done and used.

The image of a scientists will also change: it will not lose any of the professional status that it currently enjoys, but will take on a greater social dimension that will add extra satisfaction to the work done.

Obviously these changes will take time: those of you who go on to follow science careers will experience these changes at first hand. But you will also have a role to play: both in terms of the work you do, and the need to explain in clear and understandable terms why you are doing it and how it will contribute towards the overall development of society.

Conclusion

Finally, I would like to address a few words to our Hosts during this week, and to the other key people who have contributed towards the success of this year’s event here in Budapest. In fact, I am particularly glad that the Contest is here since after many years of close co-operation Hungary is now one of the new Member States of the Union.

The Contest takes months if not years of planning and hard work and without the dedication and effort of the Host Organiser of this year’s event, the Hungarian Association for Innovation in co-operation with the Hungarian Ministry for Education, we would not be here today. Thank you.

I also want to extend my sincere gratitude to the members of the Jury for their particularly difficult task of selecting the winning projects. This is never an easy task and I know that they have deliberated at length before coming to their conclusion.

Last but clearly not least I would like to extend a special thank you to our guest scientists: Nobel Laureates Sir Harry Kroto, and Professor Ivar Giaever.

Thank you!


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