ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon's preface to the booklet “Utopia and Knowledge”, at the initiative of Minister Manuel Heitor summing up the Portuguese EU Presidency, gathering input for the debate on the Future of Europe
We are living in very special times. On the one hand, the pandemic has struck the whole world at an unprecedented speed, requiring that political leaders take rapid and sometimes unpopular decisions. Those decisions had to be informed by scientists providing the political echelon with key facts on the situation and the possible consequences of the steps to be taken. On the other hand, several challenges, that have been with us for quite some time, such as climate change, digital transition and growing inequalities, have generated an even more pressing demand for sustained actions. These challenges too can only be addressed through close international collaborations between scientists and policy makers that share data and identify critical paths to follow, several of them directly impacting the society at large. This can only be achieved by “taking the long view”.
This combination of pressing short-term actions and necessary long-term commitments, including a thorough monitoring of their implementation, is a major challenge to democracies where, too often, confronting the power in place comes with the claim that it has done everything wrong. The need to establish broadly accepted facts-based goals requires in-depth discussions and informed exchanges in which the scientific community at large must be involved. The extraordinary achievement of having vaccines for CoViD-19 available in less than a year teaches us in the most spectacular way that gaining knowledge in itself is essential if one wants to be able to raise the readiness level of our societies for the next crises to come. It was indeed the rapid sharing of data and the understanding of key processes that accumulated over decades – with other purposes in mind –, coupled with massive industrial investments and elaborate social organisation, which made the decisive step of offering vaccination to billions of people possible. This is why the title “Utopia and Knowledge” that Minister Heitor gave to this booklet is highly appropriate.
We are indeed moving into a society in which knowledge is going to play an increasingly decisive role. Hence all channels through which knowledge is produced have to be understood and mobilised. Of course a major one involves the scientific communities. In order to enter this new way of life with a positive mindset, and hope is vital for society to develop in a healthy way, one has to give frontier research and innovation the appropriate visibility. This cannot happen without a radically improved way of having the scientific community engage with decision makers and the public at large. Producing documents like this booklet which summarises actions and discussions that took place during the Portuguese EU Presidency on issues related to research and innovation is a welcome step in the right direction.
To make it possible to move forward at the needed pace and with the appropriate momentum, it is the collective responsibility of policy makers and scientists to give explicit signs to young people that their involvement in science is cherished and, indeed, essential for Europe’s future. They must see clear prospects for being employed in research if they have the talent and the ambition to orient their lives accordingly. Why? Because researchers are at the heart of the research process. One has to ensure that they will be provided with enough freedom and support to pursue the research questions they have chosen to tackle. And, as a matter of great urgency, we need to plot out a sustainable career path for motivated young researchers who are probably the ones most hit by the restrictions that had to be introduced during the pandemic.
Recognising the pressing need to take the next generation on board is essential for the future of Europe at a moment when its natural competitors in North America and in Asia are making long-term commitments with much higher budgets than European governments have so far decided to put in place. Europe has no other choice but to make the most of its talents and resources and provide the best possible foundation for heading into an increasingly unpredictable future. We owe it to all citizens of Europe.