Only through science can we progress and survive, says science and society director

April 22, 2002

Brussels, 19 April 2002

The European Commission's science and society initiatives are 'certainly not just a gadget to sell hard sciences better or to force people to accept something they don't want to accept,' the Director of the Research DG's science and society directorate, Rainer Gerold, has told CORDIS News.

Although the directorate was only established in 2001, Mr Gerold feels his team has already made progress in its mission to reconcile science and society, and says is has many more plans for the future.

'The task of reconciling science and society will continue. Science progresses and I think that society should be aware that only with science can we progress and survive, for example, economically and environmentally,' said Mr Gerold.

The Commission aims to improve the relationship between science and society by funding conferences, events such as Science Week and initiatives such as a science museum network. Mr Gerold admits that this is 'not a huge spending programme,' as only 0.3 per cent of the budget for the Sixth Framework programme (FP6) is allocated to the area. He is keen to point out, however, that money is not the only asset the Commission can use to address the issue of science and society.

'What you see in terms of science and society in the Framework programme is only the tip of the iceberg. It's the money exclusively dedicated for this purpose. But it is the clear intention to include these initiatives in the seven priorities [...] as an outreach activity. If you add all of this together, the budget would be much larger,' says Mr Gerold.

The Commission aims to have a 'catalysing effect' and 'help coordinate national activities,' not assume full responsibility for bringing science and society closer together, Mr Gerold said. This coordinating approach is supported by the Council, which has invited both the Commission and Member States to act. Mr Gerold believes this represents a 'recognition that together we can reach more. We can learn from each other.'

Another justification for the Commission becoming involved in science and society is the large amount of public money involved, according to Mr Gerold. 'The Commission is massively financing research through the Framework programmes, and you should not do this in isolation from society,' he said.

The Commission uses a combination of tools to reach society, including large one-off events such as last year's conferences on gender issues and science and governance, and ongoing, lower key activities. The aim of large events is 'to appeal to the public, to have a certain platform and resonance of the media,' said Mr Gerold, 'but what really matters is probably the hard work at a lower level.'

Not all tools have been successful in all countries. Mr Gerold gave the example of consensus conferences, in which a problem is put up for open discussion by a cross-section of society who try to reach a consensus on a policy. Whilst the outcome has no legal value, it is an indication of public feeling. Such conferences were successful in some countries but disastrous in others, according to Mr Gerold.

'I don't think we can forget about all tools which may not be successful in all 15 countries because then maybe we couldn't move at all,' he said. 'One should not overestimate the differences [between countries], and certainly in a globalising world and a more unified Europe, I think such differences will play less and less of a crucial role,' he added.

The Director argues that a combination of tools is necessary to bridge the gap between science and society. 'If you have only big conferences you will be accused of showing off and not having substance. If you have only substance, I think you need the media to make this known and to get support,' he says.

The Research DG is currently planning a science conference for 2004 on a scale never previously seen in Europe. The idea for the conference was inspired by conferences held by the American association for the advancement of science (AAAS), which bring together everyone in the USA interested in science for around four days. The plan for a European version is outlined in the Commission's science and society action plan.

Hugely important for the Commission is the fact that the conference will be organised at grass roots level by the scientific community itself. 'It's not the Commission who will work out the programme, it's the scientific community, but we are ready to give organisational and financial help in order to bring this about because we fear if we leave small organisations alone then they might not be able to do it because it is costly. There is an obligation to help, but it should be their conference,' says Mr Gerold. 'It will be a first of its kind. It will certainly be different to the American version because Europe is different,' he added.

The directorate's progress towards its aim of gaining society's acceptance of science is difficult to measure, but a number of sub-goals have already been attained. These include the establishment of clear guidelines in key areas such as research on embryonic stem cells.

Mr Gerold recognises that the Commission cannot target 'society' alone in order to improve relations between EU scientists and citizens, but must also encourage a change of attitude amongst researchers.

'Most scientists now realise [...] that their habit of working in an ivory tower and almost ignoring what is happening around them is changing slowly. What is still lacking in the majority is the necessary skills to adopt the frame of mind of a journalist,' said Mr Gerold.

There is much more to be done before society accepts all scientific progress, but the implementation of FP6 should help. For the first time in an EU Framework programme science and society will be spelled out as a subject in its own right and integrated into individual projects. The integration of science and society issues into FP6's new tools - networks of excellence and integrated projects - will be a way of 'forcing' contractors to do something, said Mr Gerold.

Attitudes are already changing, as demonstrated by reactions to the last call for proposals under 'public understanding' in FP5, when four or five times as many proposals as normal were received by the Commission. 'The preparation of FP6 is having an early effect on present actions,' believes Mr Gerold.

For further information on the Commission's activities in science and society, please consult the following web address: ciety/home.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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