Commissioner Janez POTOCNIK: Science and Political Power - First World Conference on the Future of Science, Fondazione Giorgio Cini

September 26, 2005

Venice, 23 September 2005

First World Conference on the Future of Science, Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Venice, 23 September 2005

Dear Senator, Your Excellency,
Dear Professors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have been invited to speak to you on the occasion of this conference.

As you are all very much aware, the current EU political agenda is dominated by the debate on the financial perspectives, the Lisbon agenda and, last but not least, the seventh Research Framework Programme. Up to now, this has not unfortunately allowed me enough time to reflect upon the important questions for debate in this conference. I am grateful for this opportunity to do so with you today, because these questions have been at the forefront of my mind ever since I was appointed Commissioner for Science and Research nearly one year ago.

I would like to reflect with you on the link between science and power, and in particular science and political power. This link is at the heart of the relationship between science and society. It is my ambition to bring research closer to society and to encourage scientists to get down from their ivory tower.

I will build my ideas along the following lines:

  • Science and technology have radically expanded the scope of what falls in the realm of human action, and therefore of policy-making.
  • The relationship between science and policy is based on multiple and partly contradictory elements that need to be taken into account simultaneously.
  • The relationship between science and policy is being shaped in a “learning-by-doing” mode. We must be clear with the citizens about the fact that we are engaged in a pragmatic process, and one in which the EU is playing a key role.
  • The radical expansion of what falls in the realm of human action.

    The crisis about politics and governance is often presented as a change in scale: the national context is not enough; more and more issues need to be dealt with at a more global level - European or beyond - on the one hand, or at a more local level - through decentralisation and regionalisation - on the other.

    Without denying this change in scale, I believe that we tend to overlook the fact that it is also a question of a change in nature which has science and technology at its heart.

    This has radically altered what depends on human action and what does not, in at least three ways:

    • Firstly, with nuclear energy, science and technological development has led to the potentiality of mass destruction, opening a drastically new dimension in the realm of public action, i.e. the fact of not activating this potential for mass destruction. This became obvious in the second half of the last century.
    • Secondly, science and technological development have led to sustainability issues due to the massive use of fossil fuels and other natural resources, issues that became politically relevant in the 70’s.
    • Thirdly, with developments in biotechnology, science brings into the political sphere issues such as the frontier between human and non human, or the issue of when life begins and ends.
    Whether we like it or not, all these issues fall now under human responsibility. Decisions need to be made collectively in one way or the other. This is what I mean when I say: “becoming a political issue”.

    These essentials of human life and the future, which used to be “given” for earlier policy-makers, are now firmly on the agenda for public deliberation and policy-making. They have opened up an entirely new front that is far removed from the conditions in Ancient Greece where our reference to democracy still anchors itself.

    Multiple and partly contradictory elements about the link between science and policy.

    In the rationale of the relationship between science and policy, three reference points can be identified: truth, progress and responsibility.

    These references originate in different periods of time:

    • From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, i.e. the 16th-18th centuries,
    • The Industrial revolution, i.e. the 19th century,
    • The Knowledge-based society, i.e. the second half of the 20th century.
    First reference: science and truth.

    From the 16th-18th century period, we inherit the vision of science as an endeavour which aims at discovering the underlying laws of nature, and to this end, needs to be protected from other interferences such as ideology, religion or any form of power. This is translated in the fundamental principle of the academic freedom [1] , and grounds the legitimacy of the self-governance of the scientific community.

    In this context, what is expected from policy is to protect or guarantee the independence or the integrity of the scientific endeavour. Any other form of relation is seen as a distortion of science, taking away the benefit that science can bring to society.

    The strength of this view in today’s context is to avoid what is called the “politicization of science”: the distortion of evidence to conform with political pre-conceived agendas or private opinions. I cannot help but regret that the negative association attributed to this notion of “politicization” is seen to reflect badly on politics itself.

    However, there is also a limitation of this view, and that lies in the expectation that scientific knowledge can spare political deliberations by unequivocally showing the way ahead.

    Second reference: science and progress

    From the 19th century, we know that scientific discoveries lead to technological developments which impact on our way of life - mainly in a positive way - and open new areas for economic activity. Scientific discoveries in the field of thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and solid state physics have led to huge industrial sectors and activities, improving the quality of life and providing goods, jobs and revenue.

    From this perspective, policy is expected to produce a research-friendly context and be conducive to innovation in order to perpetuate this source of progress and economic growth. The relationship between science and policy is based on the fact that policy should be supportive to research and innovation by funding research and creating the right conditions to ensure that research results are translated into economically and socially relevant innovations. By ensuring this nurturing role for the innovation process, policies are expected to stimulate progress and growth.

    The assumption on which this view rests is that the only way to sustain growth in the long term comes from research and innovation. At the end of last century, it was said that “research of today is the investment of tomorrow and the jobs of the day after tomorrow”. At the turn of this century, this has been recognised as the Lisbon objective.

    Third reference: science and responsibility

    Sustainability issues or misuse of technologies did not acquire political significance until the second half of the 20th century; with the use of the atomic bomb, and later, with the first oil crisis, and the ethical questions linked to biotechnology.

    What distinguishes this third point of reference from the first two is surely the loss of the automatic links between science, truth and progress. Science is recognized to be ambivalent. It is there, at the heart of our societies. The question is not anymore “for or against science”. It is “how”. Science is part of the problem and part of the solution.

    Hence, policies are now expected, on the one hand, to control potential excess and misuses of science, and on the other, to ensure sustainability, public health and food safety. In this sense, science enters into politics and is a full part of democratic debate and policies.

    Policy is therefore expected to set norms and standards and interfere with science, and to channel scientific results into socially-relevant objectives. It is required to protect science against itself and place it at the service of society, putting the notion of responsibility side-by-side with the ones of truth and progress. This is widely recognised by the population. In the last Eurobarometer, 58% of citizens call for greater involvement of the public in decisions about science and technology.

    Articulations of the three references

    Let’s recapitulate: we have identified three different expectations about policy related to science:

    • To protect integrity and independence of science,
    • To nurture the innovation process,
    • To protect science against itself and place it at the service of society.
    The two first expectations are partly contradictory. Indeed, one means “no interference”, the other calls for support. But they share the same implicit assumption that science and technology are good by themselves. The third expectation abandons the unequivocal assumptions of truth and progress and is based on the recognition of the ambivalence of science and technology, and the need to include them in the framework of public deliberation while continuing to reinforce the research system and its efficiency.

    You will admit that this is a complex situation... that needs to be addressed in a most pragmatic way!

    A pragmatic process and the key role of the EU.

    Let me conclude by describing how we deal at EU level with this complex and challenging situation.

    First, we need to recognize the fundamental difficulty of dealing with dilemmas in democracies.

    As we all know, democracies exert powers backed up by the majority of the population. As individuals, we are seeking two objectives: to secure maximum potential and freedom for our individual lives while contributing to right collective decision-making.

    The paradigm of the “invisible hand” is totally compatible with democracy, and the rule of majority. Indeed, in this configuration, as we know, the sum of individual behaviours leads to a collective optimum.

    The dilemma configuration is, in a certain sense, the exact opposite of “the invisible hand”. Indeed, in this configuration the sum of individual behaviours leads to unsustainable situations and “free-rider” attitudes need to be neutralized. Hence, as individuals and citizens, we are torn between our wish to maximise our personal utility and our wish to contribute to the right collective environment.

    It is easy to understand how much more difficult it is to elaborate policies in democracies where we have to articulate personal and collective considerations, as well as short term and long term perspectives.

    Furthermore, the EU institutional architecture is a mix between democracy among citizens and democracy among nations: this, obviously, adds another layer of complexity, in dealing with dilemmas.

    In view of this situation, I am proud to say that the European Union plays a key role in the pragmatic process of bringing science closer to society.

    With Euratom, the very early days of European research have been devoted to the peaceful development of nuclear energy, in a period in which the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still very vivid.

    Then research activities were funded, mainly to build networks and partnerships across national frontiers.

    In the 80’s, the importance of research in the context of global competition and the need for Europe to boost its industrial standing have put the focus of research policy on the competitiveness of industry.

    When research policy was introduced for the first time as a special chapter of the Treaty [2] in 1992, a dual objective was established: to reinforce the scientific basis of European industry and to provide a sound scientific basis for the other EU policies.

    At the end of the 20th century, research has been recognised by the European Heads of State and Governments as being at the heart of the knowledge-based society.

    At the same time, the need for independent scientific advice arose from the BSE crisis and other food safety or environmental issues, while controversies developed concerning GMOs and stem cells, highlighting society’s increasing interest in scientific developments.

    The Commission reacted by making organisational changes in its own structure and setting up agencies to ensure that its policies were backed up by independent scientific advice.

    In the 6th European Research Framework Programme, nearly 600 million Euros are devoted to policy-related research, and, for the first time, a “science and society” chapter was introduced alongside the bulk of the activity devoted to bringing about the structural changes needed to build the European Research Area.

    As you may know, we have now entered the phase of negotiating the 7th Research Framework Programme: the main instrument of EU-research policy for the period 2007 to 2013. It is my objective to ensure that FP7 places research at the service of society through appropriate policies, taking into account the triple roles of R&D policies:

    • Being a protector of the integrity of science;
    • A supporter of innovation;
    • A guarantor of societal relevance.
    It is with this in mind that we have proposed a European Research Council which rests on the principle of scientific independence. FP7 also has the overarching goal of supporting research for innovation and being at the service of policies.

    In parallel, we have developed a web platform, SINAPSE, to help channel scientific advice to policy-makers.

    In order to reinforce the societal relevance of research, we will increase the involvement of organised civil society in the research policy cycle. Already academics and industrialists are well involved, but progress needs to be made regarding civil society. Broadening access to research can only improve the relationship between science and society by showing that research brings value to society and is accessible to all.


    A new relationship between science and policy is being invented and built as we speak. It will not come out of the blue. We remain a long way from meeting the challenge when we refer only to the irrationality of the public, or the need to make science attractive and keep the public quiet, in order to move forward with technological innovations. The challenge is not to find tricks to make things easy and produce blind trust and consensual views: would this be in line with a democratic knowledge-based society?

    Instead, we need to learn to live in a collective environment where science is fully accepted, and at the heart of public deliberations. Let’s apply to policy-making the mix of enthusiasm and scepticism that makes scientific research so powerful. Let’s be confident in ourselves.

    As European Commissioner for Research, I want to bring a new dynamic to science and research and firmly engage them at the heart of policy-making at EU level. I want them on the front pages of newspapers. I will strive to make sure that the extraordinary endeavour of scientific research is strongly supported and plays its full and complex role at the heart of European democracies.

    I thank you for your attention.

    [1] Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Right: Freedom of the arts and sciences: “The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected”.

    [2] Maastricht Treaty: “The Community shall have the objective of strengthening the scientific and technological bases of Community industry and encouraging it to become more competitive at international level, while promoting all the research activities deemed necessary by virtue of other Chapters of this Treaty”.

    Item source: SPEECH/05/540 Date: 23/09/2005 Previous Item Back to Titles Print Item

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