25 years of public understanding of science – what next?

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The idea that science is ‘in’ and therefore part of society, has gained widespread acceptance. Interactions between “science” and “society” (which have existed since the days of Galileo) have multiplied at different levels. They have also taken different forms which partly mask the deep and irreversible transformation that science as an institution is undergoing in a society that has come to expect that its economic prosperity depends on it.

What seems certain for the 21st century, more than ever before: unless we get smarter, we will get poorer. The future will be shaped by science and technology –but equally by how society will use the fruits of curiosity, for which ends and through which kinds of institutions.

At the political and economic level public understanding of science translates as follows. Science is under pressure to ‘deliver’ in terms of results that will fuel economic growth, lead to the creation of new jobs and to general prosperity. In other words, science (meaning research and its relations to industry) is expected to make innovation happen – faster and faster.

But the public, i.e. political understanding of how science works, is also lagging. Universities in Europe are in dire need of more public funding, in order to be able to provide the next generation with the necessary knowledge and skills. Society needs the capacity to absorb the new knowledge generated by science. Also this is public understanding of science.

At the level of citizens and their everyday experience science and society interactions have become ubiquitous in often unexpected and unforeseen ways. Millions of ‘users’ already contribute actively their knowledge to the production of new information and communication technologies. In medical biotechnologies users (patients or potential risk groups) engage with science by actively contributing body cells, tissues or genes which form the necessary collective reference for any individual. diagnostic or therapy.

The involvement of users has spearheaded a movement of ‘scientific citizens’ who discuss their role and rights in their interaction with science. The Internet has greatly increased access to scientific information, enabling citizens to get involved. They now expect to have their voices heard in decisions taken on their behalf and, increasingly, to take relevant decisions themselves.

The involvement of scientists and their organizations with the public has also significantly increased. Scientists had to learn, sometimes in the hard way, that engagement means more than experts providing information or advice to ignorant lay persons. Even if some of this interaction is delegated to the public relations units of scientific organizations, many scientists have understood that nothing can replace personal involvement. They also understand that the young have to become equally fascinated by science, if there is to be a next generation of scientists.

So, does this mean that everything is well? That we have arrived after 25 years of tensions and conflicts at a state where science in society has become fully integrated in our cultural, economic and political life?

Alas, no. More challenges lie ahead. The greatest is to establish a governance structure in which law, ethics and socially robust governance mechanisms will allow society to make optimal use of the enormous potential that science and technology have to offer.

Originally, science was a neutral undertaking that had to keep religious and political interference at bay. Science saw itself as reigned by ‘facts’, while ‘values’ belonged to society. At the beginning of the 21 century, science offers so many scientifically and technically feasible options, that the choice among them inevitably becomes political in a deep sense. Science and society therefore need a new understanding of how their mutual relationship is changing by the way how both evolve. Only novel forms of engagement will assure that the fruits of curiosity are harvested for the maximum individual and public benefit.

Helga Nowotny is President of the European Research Council and Chair of the Programme Committee of ESOF2010.