The Enhanced Role of Scientists as Social Actors
09 May 2019
ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, ALLEA 25th anniversary symposium, Bern, Switzerland
Cover image of The Enhanced Role of Scientists as Social Actors

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Many thanks to the organisers for inviting me here today. It is a great honour to speak at the scientific symposium on the occasion of the ALLEA’s 25th Anniversary. The topic for our discussion “Science and Society in Present-day Europe” has a long history, but it has indeed become a critical question.

The thesis I would like to present to you is this, “in this context, scientists have an enhanced role to play as social actors”.

Why is that so?

We live in an “information age” where everybody (or almost everybody) is overwhelmed by a deluge of information. News spreads instantaneously and ignores borders. If one is looking for specific information, then, more than ever before, one can find it in some form. This has undoubtedly brought great benefits and deeply changed the relation many have to information. I would like to say here the ‘relation to knowledge’, but I am afraid I cannot.

Indeed we are at the same time growing increasingly aware of the downsides of these developments. At first sight somewhat paradoxically ‘fake news’, or disinformation, has become a major problem. This issue has reached the point of becoming a threat to the development of an informed society. Simply because, while the widespread use of the internet allows many more people to take part in the exchange, it also offers new possibilities to act to people interested in manipulating the discussion. And the life of these trouble makers is made easier because many of us are unwilling to put in the effort required to get quality information.

As scientists, we have been trained to systematically look at any information we are exposed to in a critical way, because we know that a first look is almost always not enough to really get to the deep truth.
Do the various education systems in place in Europe prepare the next generation to do that? I doubt it very much. Are we, as scientists, paying enough attention to this key issue? I am not doubtful. We are not!

The growth of “fake news” and disinformation goes along with an unprecedented rejection of “experts” in general. Simple (“simplistic”?) solutions sound more plausible than in depth explanations that require patience and a knowledge of the basics in order to understand them. This is particularly problematic when dealing with complex issues, and the world is facing many these days.

Examples abound: from climate change denial to the spread of the anti-vaccine movement. Along the way, this trend has nurtured the rise of populism, leading to the success of authoritarian politicians around the world who rely on ignorance to strengthen their capacity to control society.
Some say that, together, these trends may even amount to a rejection of broader Enlightenment values by the general public,values that have been and remain truly inseparable from a sound development of Science. As scientists, we are thus confronted with a major issue.

The long-term answer therefore seems to be to educate people better, to bring science closer to citizens and to ensure that science addresses issues of relevance to people, that have an impact on their lives.
On the face of it, this story has some coherence. But if we look more closely, will this really be enough to take us out of this vicious loop? I doubt it. Almost surely to find a real way forward will require a more in depth analysis of what creates dissatisfaction and allows it to spread. I do not see enough effort being put into such a research.

For us scientists, the key question is of course: what specific contributions can we make to help address these matters?
In my opinion, there are several.
I will start by drawing your attention to the fact that, when we actually ask people what they think, they do not say they are losing their trust in scientists or science.
Many regular surveys of who the public trust are conducted in many countries. In October last year a survey in the UK showed that 85% of people generally trust scientists to tell the truth. This needs to be compared with 62% for “the ordinary man/woman in the street”, 34% for business leaders, 26% for journalists and 19% for politicians. A Pew Research Centre survey in the US last year found similar results, namely that “public confidence in the scientific community as a whole has remained stable for decades”.

In a similar vein, in 2014 a major Eurobarometer survey on public perceptions of science, research and innovation across the Member States concluded that a large proportion of Europeans believe that science and technological innovation will have a positive impact in addressing most of the issues facing society in the next 15 years. Earlier this year, another survey in the US showed that about four-in-ten adults (43% to be precise) say similarly that science and technology will have a very positive impact on solving the nation’s problems in the future, and an additional 44% a somewhat positive one.

In contrast, respondents had little confidence in government’s ability to tackle the country’s biggest problems. Only 7% said they think the government in Washington will have a very positive impact on solving the nation’s problems in the future.

So surveys of public opinion from around the world show very high trust in science and scientists. And furthermore, the public puts a lot of faith in science to have a positive or very positive impact on the major issues facing society.

So how do we reconcile these findings with the prevailing narrative that disinformation is spreading, that people are turning against science and that scientists must do more?

I think there are several parts to the answer.

Firstly, because the use of social media is now so pervasive we forget how recent it is. In January 2019 an incredible 57% of the population of the world were estimated to be internet users and 45% were active social media users. Just 10 years ago only 7% of the US population used one or more social networking sites. Now that figure has increased almost tenfold, to 65%. Of those who use the internet a significant majority of 76% of Americans use social media. 

So we are only just learning how to properly use and regulate this incredible new networking system. Society is still developing social norms and ways of behaving on, and of making use of social media. One part of this is that, in our daily lives, we can very easily identify opinionated and divisive characters but on social media these people can dominate.

There may also be an element of age, where those who worry most about social media are the least sophisticated and knowledgeable users of it!

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I think that people do not have a very good understanding of how science works. In particular, I don’t think that people understand very well what science can and cannot do.

Let us for example take this idea that science should have more impact. Frankly, if we consider it a bit in depth, it doesn’t make much sense. Humanity is 200 years into a series of revolutions unlike anything we have ever seen before. We have exploded out of the Malthusian condition in which we have been bound for millennia.

Our societies are struggling to come to terms with the changes unleashed by the most recent scientific and industrial revolutions. And these changes even appear to be accelerating with the digital revolution which may have a broader and deeper impact. Effects are visible all around us. What could it mean to want more impact in such a situation?

So, when people say they want more impact, it is a substitute for a plea to see their problems solved. And that is of course a very different thing!

In “The Value of Science”, written in 1988, the physicist Richard FEYNMAN wrote: “The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of thingsScientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad - but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.

Another physicist, Enrico FERMI, made a similar observation:"Some of you may ask, what is the good of working so hard merely to collect a few facts which will bring no pleasure except to a few long-haired professors… because only few specialists at best will be able to understand them? In answer to such question[s] I may venture a fairly safe prediction. History of science and technology has consistently taught us that scientific advances in basic understanding have sooner or later led to technical and industrial applications that have revolutionised our way of life... What is less certain, and what we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers acquired over nature."

This points to the specific responsibility of scientists to not promise too much and of making very clear the variety of possible uses of the new knowledge they have uncovered. At the same time, to prevent any attack on the ground of integrity, scientists must show their total determination to address frontally any ethical issues that may arise.

Thirdly, another cause of misunderstanding could be due to the many successes of the past. As people have seen a sustained stream of findings, technologies and innovations appear decade after decade, a number of them may have come to think of this as an easy and, in the end, predictable process. Non-scientists maytherefore grow impatient and imagine they can order whatever “innovations” they might like, as if choosing from a menu. Overlysimplistic models tend to prevail in the minds of many: “you put enough money on a problem, and it gets solved”.

But of course we know that science does not, and cannot work that way.

So, as scientists, we need to do a better job of explaining how science works, the time frames in which it operates, and the many attempts that have often been needed to reach even the goals that seemed readily attainable. Sometimes we too easily say, “leave it to us, just give us more money and great things will happen”. If we behave like this, then we ourselves are contributing to the impression that science is easy and predictable, when we all know it is hard work and we often fail!

We need to be clear that basic research is essentially trying to understand how things work. Natural phenomena exist in the world regardless of our desires. Technologies harness such phenomena and can be used for good or bad.

We should never forget this at a time where some governments want to strictly direct the work done in the laboratories of their countries, or restrain the freedom of speech and movement of scientists, and more broadly of citizens. We need to consider the fight for scientific freedom for scientists as a central issue.

And it is not only to protect scientists as the negative effects of any attack on scientific freedom will affect society at large.

Fourthly, interactions between basic research, technological progress and the economy are varied and complex. It is widely accepted however, on the basis of past experience, that technological progress requires a combination of basic or curiosity-driven research and applied research. Policy-makers have to acknowledge that and design programmes to support research and innovation respecting that diversity and complementary principle.

Last but not least, our community life gives a good example ofhow to cultivate the value of combining competition and cooperation, something more human societies should learn. This is why, in many parts of the world, scientific diplomacy is used to build bridges between communities to help them create a common future. The SESAME experience in Jordan is a good example of the value of cooperation in a very difficult environment. We should contribute to more initiatives like this!

In conclusion, I do not think that, provided proper measures are taken, entering a new dark age of unreason is what awaits us. We, scientists, have an obligation to contribute to the necessary safeguards and to avoid the whole of society falling in such a trap. The new challenge is that all human weaknesses are now there for all to see on social media. Let us help make our human strengths as equally visible and protected.

For me, there is no doubt that us scientists are crucial social actors in these troubled times and that we should be up to this considerable responsibility. Actually, our role goes far beyond generating new knowledge, whether it is abstract, concrete or technological. We also have a key role in explaining how the scientific process works. This starts with ensuring that the scientific method is properly taught in schools, and convincing people of the importance of quality education and the high priority it must have.

One of the most important messages we must give is to not let people think that we can quickly and reliably solve all the problems society faces with some kind of magic.

This is a doubly dangerous idea. Because firstly we would be deceiving ourselves. And secondly, if people think we can, then it will make them less likely to take the hard decisions needed to really solve the problems of society, which will almost surely involve the efforts of many.

I thank you for your attention.