Per una “sana” comunicazione della scienza

Intervista alla sociologa Helga Nowotny

For the sociologist Helga Nowotny, Professor at Zurich University, expert on relations between science and society and President of the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB), scientists should no longer expect unconditional public support or an uncritical acceptance of their authority. She also believes that ‘healthy’ scientific communication must be wary of ‘media excesses’ and not be afraid of asking society to make an effort to understand the work and world of researchers – in particular, their uncertainties, contradictions and contingencies.

Last March you spoke at the Science and Society Forum contrasting fact and fiction, which you refer to as the “high- and low-cost realities”, and expressing concern at the way these two approaches are confused when communicating science…
The subject about which I am especially critical concerns the way that a media-saturated society like ours, which is constantly playing with facts and fiction, and delights in mixing them, may come to treat scientific facts – namely, just as another form of fiction. If you add to this orchestrated campaigns, like the one that took place in the US with the aim of discrediting the scientific credibility of global warming, you are entering a zone of potential great danger. Scientists are not always aware of how the low-cost realities that pervade how science is presented endanger the scientific realities that can only be obtained at high cost.

In their day, did the novels of Jules Verne ever harm scientific thinking? Surely, like any human activity, science has its dream component too?
There can be no doubt that science, like other forms of human creativity, is inspired and nourished by imagination. But this is followed by a rigorous process of testing and of empirical verification. The history of science is full of examples of people being haunted by the possibility that their imagination could lead them astray, which gave rise to strengthening an ethos of always looking for and obtaining empirical proof before making their claims public.

On the other hand, I have absolutely nothing against the fact that literature – be it through the well-established genre of science fiction, or in other, often very sophisticated literary forms, deals with the ways science and technology enter the sphere of human imagination and influence how we see the future or the emotions they evoke in us. But it should remain clear that this is a literary way of dealing with the enormous impact that science and technology have on our lives.

The point is not that we should not be allowed to ‘dream’ about what science might possibly still achieve, but that we should not confuse dreams with reality. Even scientific dreams – and they certainly exist – have to be subject to periodic reality checks.

What do you see as the principles of a healthy relationship between the media and scientists, without, for example, becoming a victim of some kind of star system where it is often the same charismatic experts who act as spokesmen and women?
The media follow their own rules of how to communicate and this holds equally for how to communicate science. It is therefore difficult to avoid the star system. On the other hand, I would like to see at least as much reporting in the media on ‘scientific stars’ as reports on stars in football or in popular music.

As for the attitude of scientists, communication is a term that covers a great diversity of practices, whose overall aim is to strengthen the links between science and society. Of course, we can discuss their relative effectiveness or what would be the best division of labour, since not every scientist can be expected to be equally good at everything. But, at the least, it is important to be clear about the basic expectations on the side of both science and society. Science can no longer expect unconditional support on the part of society for whatever it wants to do, nor unconditional acceptance of its authority. Society will have to become more involved in understanding better how research actually functions and why it is important. Therefore, what is needed is a new kind of more mature partnership.

To give greater importance to what we are really doing over the simplified presentation of sensational results is part of what I see to be that mature relationship. The public knows very little, for instance, of the role that peer review plays in research and how it actually works. Citizens know next to nothing about how research priorities are actually set or how scientific institutions of various kinds function. The European Commission recently launched a campaign under the slogan Researchers among us. It shows a picture of an ordinary young man or woman in an ordinary situation – with the caption giving their name, scientific discipline and age. Researchers are indeed among us (even if they barely total 1% of the European population). They need to be made visible, both in the real and in the imaginary sense. Many of the young ones are willing to engage with the society that surrounds them – but they need the understanding and support of their institutions to do so.

At the Forum, you also expressed concern about the rise of irrational and regressive opposition that is based systematically on “value systems” .
Yes, what I had in mind in particular in my intervention at the Forum was the rise of ‘faith-based movements’ and other kinds of demands that have recourse to ‘their’ own values and that make it very difficult to negotiate and reach some kind of compromise, without which no democracy can function.

But, in the name of research freedom, is science able to position itself outside of any recognition of social constraints?
Historically, la liberté de chercher (or Wissenschaftsfreiheit, which is even written into the German constitution), were important principles which safeguarded science from political interference.

In reality, the autonomy of science has always been a relative one and it is important to maintain this space of autonomy today. On the other hand, it does not imply that science can do anything it likes, but it cannot be held responsible for every use and abuse to which scientific knowledge or technology are put either. It should therefore be interpreted as being part of the unwritten contract between science and society: it contains rights and obligations that change historically over time and therefore have to be reviewed and reinterpreted again and again.

Of course, science has to recognise certain limits and must accept some kind of regulation. This is usually done through the law and legal-administrative procedures. Ethics committees and ethical guidelines have come to play an important part in the forefront of explicit legal regulation. In general, they have been accepted by the scientific community as a way of recognising that such limits exist and also as a means of protecting its own autonomy through self-regulation. But there is an in-built dynamic in the interplay between science and ethics. First, science is always one step ahead in defining what is or will soon be feasible, even if nobody knows as yet where it will actually lead. Second, values – however immutable they may seem in principle – do change and often do so much faster than anyone anticipated. Although there may be many warnings against going down ‘the slippery slope’, actual experience shows that if society comes to see real benefits in what lies ahead, it is willing to embrace them even if they come at a cost. Therefore, what is involved is always a rapidly moving target which has somehow to be kept on a course that does justice to both, the scientific potential and ethical guidelines that relate to societal values.

Do you think that scientific communication can or should result in legitimate views of citizens which influence the direction taken by certain lines of research?
It all depends on the level at which such attempts occur. Most researchers sincerely believe that their activities are for the benefit of society. At the other extreme, telling researchers what to do and what the outcome should be is simply counter-productive. Research does not function this way. This leaves us with the middle ground: a public space in which to negotiate societal needs and expectations, economic interests, which undeniably are there, and what is scientifically feasible and attractive. Every ‘real world’ problem has to be translated into a scientific problem if it is to enter the research process at all.

But in practice is science not becoming increasingly ‘subservient’ to economic considerations, which could cause its independence to be questioned?
Undeniably, there has been a shift towards a greater involvement in some areas of research (usually high tech with great promises of financial returns) with economic and market interests, which comes with the increase of private funding for research. The overall importance of intellectual property rights certainly exemplifies this. But there have also been a number of new regulations and self-regulations, from scientific journals asking authors to declare any personal interests they may have in the outcome of their research to universities scrutinising the content of research contracts offered by industry. The overall aim must be to protect the autonomy of science from economic interests interfering with results and their scientific objectivity. But given the fact that public investment into research is stalling, private investment into research is badly needed, especially in Europe.

But by limiting in the Treaties the EU’s field of intervention to the competitiveness of European companies, in terms of communication, does the EU’s research policy present a fundamentally utilitarian image?
At the beginning, the EU only financed research that would contribute to an increase in European industry’s competitiveness. It was therefore very narrowly conceived. Gradually the scope was widened and the Framework Programmes began to include some basic or fundamental research. With the proposed European Research Council, an historical policy change occurred, and now frontier research of the highest level and on a competitive basis will be financed at EU level. This will also include research in the social sciences and humanities.

In general, however, the main emphasis of EU research policy rests with technological innovation and the contributions it will make towards economic growth and competitiveness. We tend to overlook the importance of social, cultural and organisational factors that are often taken for granted. Therefore, much more emphasis should be placed on stronger and better integration of the social sciences and humanities into the Seventh Framework Programme.

This interview was published on the november special issue of RTDinfo (magazine of European Research) released on the eve of the International Conference “Communicating European Research 2005”, held in Brussels the 14th and 15th of November 2005. By kind permission of the original website.

30 novembre 2005 | in: Comunicazione, Contributi,