Dialogue with citizens can change public opinion, say Swiss scientists

November 22, 2002

Brussels, 21 Nov 2002

The importance of communication for the furtherance of scientific research was emphasised by all speakers at a Swiss science briefing on 'When direct democracy and scientific research clash: science and society in dialogue' in Brussels on 20 November.

Swiss speakers emphasised how public opinion is particularly important in their country, where direct democracy means that the citizens are able to vote on important political questions, including research questions such as gene technology.

Claude Longchamp, a political scientist and Director of the GfS research institute in Zurich and Bern, highlighted how the very issue of gene technology prompted Swiss scientists to increase significantly their efforts to communicate with the general public.

In 1995, an EU decision on the genetic mapping of a mouse sparked off a worldwide debate on gene technology, no less so in Switzerland. Public opinion was initially emotional and extremely negative. With the prospect of a national vote that could place a moratorium on gene technology research in Switzerland, researchers realised that dialogue with the public was essential.

Mr Longchamp outlined three ways in which this dialogue altered public opinion, leading to the rejection of the moratorium in 1998. He believes that knowledge of gene technology was lower in Switzerland than in other countries when the debate first began, whereas communication with scientists increased knowledge and therefore understanding.

This new knowledge meant that opinions became mixed as people began to weigh up the risks of gene technology against the possible benefits it could bring to society. Finally, the public debate led to a differentiation between the different types of gene technology, with more acceptance developing for medical research but a continued rejection of gene technology in relation to food.

And how did Swiss researchers succeed in changing public opinion? 'Scientists got together and went out on the streets with pamphlets. They tried to work out what they needed to communicate,' said Bruno Oesch, CEO and co-founder of Prionics AG, a spin-off from Zurich University.

Participants at the briefing were interested to know whether scientists in other countries could be encouraged to take on such a proactive role. 'In Switzerland it was a case of communicate or perish. Elsewhere, no credit at all is given for being a good communicator. All you have to do is publish, publish, publish,' said one member of the audience.

Mr Oesch remained positive, saying that a lot of scientists enjoyed their first contact with the general public. It was not elitist thinking that had discouraged them from explaining their work to the public, but the notion that nobody was interested, claimed Mr Oesch.

Mr Oesch also highlighted how the very process of communicating science to the public can be problematic. 'Science is based on findings and facts, and the gaps, which always exist in research, leave room for interpretation,' he said, referring predominantly to the media.

Focusing mainly on the issue of BSE, Mr Oesch spoke of how scientific results are published in peer reviewed journals, which are not read by the public. The information is then translated by various interest groups and then reaches the public in a digested form.

'Here lies the major problem. Journalists usually need a story and, without wanting to blame journalists, often by picking some small scientific detail, you can make a story out of it,' said Mr Oesch. Scientists should shoulder some of the responsibility by ensuring that their content is correct, he added.

Director of the Commission's Science and Society Directorate, Rainer Gerold, emphasised how dialogue with the public is more difficult at European level than at national level. 'We are bigger and we have at least one layer in between - national governments and sometimes the regions,' said Mr Gerold.

He said that the Commission wants to move away from teaching the public what is good for them and towards dialogue, and to make the dialogue fruitful and not confrontational.

Mr Gerold announced that in a few weeks, the Commission will publish a communication on a more effective relationship between scientific advice and Commission decisions.

For further information on science and society, please visit: http://www.cordis.lu/rtd2002/science-soc iety/home.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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