Brussels, 13 Jun 2003
The creation of a knowledge based society in Europe, and the success of the European Research Area (ERA), both depend on the active involvement and support of civil society, according to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.
The Commissioner was speaking at an international conference in Brussels on 12 June, the aim of which was to examine the governance of the ERA and the role that civil society should play in the process. Over 200 delegates from 26 European countries were in attendance, and Mr Busquin described the event as the first of its kind to be held at EU level.
'Citizens' relationship with science and technology has deteriorated in recent years. People have high expectations of scientific progress, but there also exists a degree of apathy [...] and a certain anxiety, which is a problem for researchers and politicians, as well as citizens themselves,' said the Commissioner.
Mr Busquin acknowledged that issues such as mad cow's disease had stoked public fears, but he also stressed that science holds the answers to many of the problems currently facing society.
Indeed, understanding and tackling issues such as global warming, finite natural resources and biodiversity requires an ambitious research programme, and that means gaining the support and involvement of civil society, the Commissioner said.
On a practical level, Mr Busquin noted that in order to fulfil the EU's target of investing three per cent of GDP in research and development (R&D), 500,000 more researchers were needed. 'This means that we must find new ways of getting young people interested in science,' he said.
One solution was offered by Jean-François Hebert, President of ECSITE, which represents science centres, museums and institutes in 25 European countries. Mr Hebert said that of the 30 to 40 million people per year who visit centres within the ECSITE network, two thirds of them are under 35.
He described how the centres have responded to people's desire to play a more active role in science: '15 years ago, the centres essentially acted as simply showcases for scientific progress; nowadays, they have become fora for discussion. Centres not only present visitors with facts and information, they also pose questions and stimulate a debate with the public.'
Mr Hebert feels that science centres have a key role to play in promoting public participation in the governance of the ERA. The centres are perceived as being neutral spaces for discussion, and have thus gained credibility in the eyes of the public. Furthermore, getting ordinary citizens interested and involved in science is what the centres and their staff do best, he concluded.
As for the Commission's role in fostering greater links between science and society, Mr Busquin highlighted the role that the Sixth Framework Programme would play: 'For the first time there is a budget line within the framework programme for science and society activities. 80 million euro [over four years] may not sound very much, but at the same time it is a great deal.'
Finally, as well as funding initiatives aimed at promoting civil society participation in scientific policy making, Mr Busquin promised that the Commission would develop best practices in the public governance of science, and disseminate successful models throughout the EU.
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