The European Forum on Science in Society


By Etienne Magnien

Science: alien of companion?
For more than two decades, the impact of science in society has built up as a common experience for most European citizens. The debate on nuclear power plants has never come to an end, the Western World has gone through repeated energy crises, various environmental issues mobilised populations, and ecology became a recognised argument of the political debate, mismanagement of the food chain or of health services caused major threats across neighbouring nations, science has been called upon either as an instrument of aggression or the key to countermeasures against the pernicious effects of globalisation, traditional industry seems to have been defeated by new emerging high-tech sectors with significant collateral damage on local employment. Yes, science is deeply pervading in our society, before public authorities could even measure the extent of its influence and the social value of its proportionate and responsible use. The public therefore manifests a high sensitivity to scientific news and to technology breakthroughs, although the relation between citizens and scientific authorities has not been as productive as it could. Will the continent which made the biggest contributions to scientific progress through history become unexpectedly the one showing greatest hostility to modernity?

How to drive the dialogue?
Eurobarometer surveys in 2001, 2003, and the last one currently underway, show repeatedly the potentials for learning within European populations, the real curiosity to novel things and the value of discoveries. At the same time, a prevalent opinion is expressing mistrust in authorised sources of scientific information, suspicion against those economic forces which have the capabilities to streamline scientific applications. There is a clear signal to policy-makers that somehow the dialogue of the world of science and technology with the rest of society has gone astray. To reinvigorate this dialogue, and to inspire respect of the interlocutors engaged so far, as well as encouraging more engagement from those who seemingly had been lost to science, the Council of Ministers in June 2001 invited the Commission and the Member States to design more deliberate policies towards restoring a harmonious interface of science and society. It was in reaction to this encouragement that the Commission adopted in December 2001 the Science and Society Action Plan. This Action Plan tries to bring some incentive and organisation for actions aimed at promoting a scientific culture, putting science to the service of policy-making and bringing the new knowledge closer to citizens in their every day life.

An Action Plan on the move
The Science and Society Action Plan has now been in existence for 3 years, and obviously tensions have not been diminishing, new crises were brought to the light one after the other, and science has been in the news reports more than ever before. It is more than time to assess how the Action Plan produced its desired effects. As all related efforts belong to a dense fabric of multiple competences, from local to international levels, through governmental action, and invite both public and private engagement, the assessment of effectiveness requires a wide range of observations. Moreover, the Action Plan primarily is a “Plan of Actors”, thus requiring that one should bring actors together before any serious attempt is made to take stock and envision the future. Hence the idea, this year realised, to mobilise existing competences within a European Forum.

Time to change gear: why not a Forum?
The Forum is hoped to be the point of convergence for actors in the science and society debate from all possible origins, starting with institutional actors in the Member States, non governmental organisations and the private sector, and including the European Commission and international organisations in their catalytic role. The convergence is expected to be in Brussels, European capital, on 9-11 March 2005, where representatives of many competent bodies will be gathered in great numbers, and evidence will be provided through different fact-finding exercises. New information will be released, such as the preliminary results of the 2005 Eurobarometer survey, the findings of a multi-nations inventory of relevant actions in Europe, the entry into force of an EC project – SINAPSE – to organise the on-line access to scientific evidence for the policy-makers and regulatory bodies.

Unity in our diversity
The convergence also relates to restoring the dimension of diversity, which characterises the distribution of sensitivities, cultures and democratic behaviours which make up the European society. In order to give a reliable image of this spread of experiences by citizens from European nations questioning science and technology in their own way, the European Forum also rests upon a network of 6 national sites, sometimes referred to as “mirror-sites”. The Italian site is organised by Observa and goes through its own event in Vicenza. It will be a crucial moment at the Forum, on 11 March in Brussels, when images from the national discussions will be shown, and testifiers from the different places invited to add their different local perceptions into the mainstream of discussions supported by the Forum.

What is the European Forum expected to achieve?
First, to render visible an abundance of efforts and accumulated experiences, which resemble more an ants’ work than any centrally organised thrust. From the experience-sharing will come greater confidence and a general learning process to the benefit of the entire research and innovation system.
Second, to address the topical issues associated with the advent of a knowledge society, and identify weaknesses resulting from deficiencies in the communication loop supposed to connect experts, policy-makers and the people.
Third, and this is the main reason to run this Forum as a European event, to help EU policy leaders measure the value to their own action of ensuring an optimal science-society communication, and give the necessary profiling to these considerations while shaping the fundamental principles of the new research policy for the Union. Only 4 weeks will separate the conclusions of the Forum from the start of the inter-institutional process aimed at adopting a 7th Framework Programme for research and technological development. It has to be shown that million ants in the innovation nest can participate in this new construction aimed at giving a prosperous and sustainable future to our community of people, in coexistence with a globalised knowledge-based society.

Dr. Etienne Magnien is currently Head of Strategy and Policy Unit of the Directorate for Science and Society at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium.