Speech of Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon
Simon Initiative Distinguished Lecture, Carnegie Mellon
University, Pittsburgh, USA
Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The subject I would like to address today is not a new one but it has become more topical in the last century and in the present one in several contexts, some truly dramatic, some less so. This gives me an opportunity to reflect on the community I belong to, the scientific community, and its relation with society at large around an issue that has always occupied humans since the Ancient Times, namely Power.
Indeed the issue of the relation of intellectuals (in Ancient Times ‘intellectuals’ were called ‘philosophers’, today one would tend to say ‘scientists’, and this is the terminology I will use here) with rulers has drawn attention in many different historical contexts. One can find thoughtful contributions on this matter from many different authors in the course of History. PLATO discusses it explicitly in Book V of the Republic, a reference in human thinking written some 2500 years ago.
Here is what PLATO wrote in a dialogue between SOCRATES and GLAUCON: "Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophical intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear GLAUCON, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either.”
In the same dialog, SOCRATES defines "philosophers" as "those for whom the truth is the spectacle of which they are enamoured".
Today, discussing this relation has become of particular relevance, even more so as stakeholders other than politicians have to be taken into consideration. On top of that now, the scientific community has grown considerably and enjoys a very remarkable diversity in its internal organization and practice of science.
I will discuss this issue in three parts: What is the scientific community today, looking back at the process of its formation? What are the forms of power scientists have been and are confronted with? In which way do scientists exert some form of power? In a conclusive part of this lecture, I would like to try to draw some perspectives on what can be the power of scientists in the future and suggest some conditions for this to actually happen.
In the first part of this lecture, let me address the question of how the scientific community got organised and what it is today. To avoid any misunderstandings I will use the concept of ‘scientists’ to mean persons who develop or have developed activities akin to what is now referred to as ‘research’, through writings, teaching and exchanges. I must recognize that using just one name to address this concept is a bit abusive but using different names could make the discussion confusing. Let me also stress that I take “science” as a general term, to mean the physical sciences and engineering, the life sciences, but also social sciences and humanities.
Let me start with one example of the role of this community in the building and dissemination of knowledge, partly because I will come back to it later (I could have taken several others from other cultures): rumours of Copernicus' heliocentric theory, certainly a turning point in human history, reached educated people all over Europe by a collective effort; later, at the time of the Enlightenment, a transnational community of brilliant thinkers, known as the “Republic of Letters”, freely circulated and distributed ideas and writings giving even more evidence that the development of science by engaged individuals has always been a collective, public and cross-border effort.
The weight, sophistication and complexity of the scientific enterprise have grown over the centuries. Research has become one of the cornerstones of higher education, and fundamental to the development of industry. This led to a considerable growth of the scientific community at large, in the public and private sectors.
What is the present size of this community that grew from the small network of the “Republic of Letters”? Giving such an estimate is not that easy but, based on the knowledge of the figures from entities such as the US and the European Union, each one of them having about one quarter of the total number of scientists, one can estimate that, belonging to this community, there are around 7 million people in the public sector when an estimate shows that over 50 million people with a job requiring a science and engineering degree are employed in the private sector.
Note that the first figure is evolving very quickly in some countries like China, which is pursuing a very ambitious programme to develop its higher education and research sectors. We are therefore talking about a community of roughly 60 million people at world level, typically 1% of the world population.
What is also quite remarkable today is the considerable diversity in the organisation of the scientific community. Depending on the discipline and on the institutional context in which the research is conducted, the size of research teams varies from a very small number (even researchers working alone may have very significant contributions in some cases) to very large groups, sometimes distributed over several countries as exemplified by the teams who supervised the critical experiments on the Higgs Boson at CERN in Geneva, or who worked on the detection of gravitational waves in LIGO (and also VIRGO). This diversity often refers to the different types of experimental tools used, some requiring massive investments and long term planning as well as highly sophisticated technological tools. Another element of diversity has to do with who has the initiative and the capacity to trigger research using a top-down approach or a bottom-up one.
It is also worth pointing to the importance scientists always placed on disseminating their results. From this point of view, in the course of History, several technological inventions played a critical role; printing was first developed in China more than 2000 years ago but was greatly enhanced by the invention of paper in the early 2nd century. In the 8th century it spread to the Islamic world and took off in the Western world with Johannes GUTENBERG in the 15th century. In the development of these technological tools we should note the motivation coming from the urge to disseminate religious texts.
A new dimension has appeared with the quick propagation worldwide of texts and images which became available less than two decades ago thanks to the internet. It is to be noted that its introduction has been fantastically triggered by the needs of the scientific community around CERN, coupled of course with the new computing capacity made available very broadly and at hugely decreasing prices thanks to the development of miniaturized chips.
This opened of course a totally new era with many new aspects that have not yet been, I am afraid, fully understood or even envisaged.
On the part of scientists working in many different countries, huge efforts have gone into producing comprehensive compendia of up-to-date knowledge. As a Frenchman I am keen to point to the extraordinary achievement represented by the production of the Encyclopédie (its full name is “Dictionnaire raisonnée des sciences, des arts et des métiers”) under the leadership of Denis DIDEROT and Jean le Rond D’ALEMBERT, an extraordinarily ambitious enterprise whose production started as an enormous translation effort for almost 20 years and span over 20 years in the second part of the 18th century, a remarkable achievement of the Enlightenment which mobilized many authors and contributors (the numerous plates are a pure delight). It had to face a number of legal challenges by the political and religious establishments of the time and its publication was blocked a few times.
Today, in the age of the internet, we see similar efforts at an even larger scale but the question of quality control has become a much more challenging task, partly because of the breadth of the effort. Later in this lecture I will come back to this issue, which is paramount when discussing the relation of scientists with society at large.
After having acknowledged the remarkable expansion of the community of scientists but also its huge diversity, can one really speak of a ‘scientific community’? The only reason why this possibility really exists is that, over the years, scientists have developed some common rules and share a good number of values to the point that one can speak of a scientific method. It has been built over centuries and respecting it conditions the validity of scientific results.
The late André BRAHIC, a French leading astronomer and a dear friend of mine, phrased it beautifully: “The scientific method is based on the twin pillars of observation and theory. Observing the world without interpreting it is of no great interest. Imagining the world as we would like it to be without subjecting it to observations and without taking account of the real world is dangerous.”
The very basis of the scientific method has been the search for causes of effects following the fundamental principle that every effect has a cause, and the need to aim for universality. The key is of course that such an approach leads to a virtuous circle. A typical instance of such a progress is our understanding of the way the world functions showing that what happens on Earth and in the Sky follows the same rules, one extraordinary fact if one accepts to consider it critically.
Quoting André BRAHIC one more time: “To understand the scientific method, one has to realize that progress comes from a continuous process of calling into question. A proposition is only scientific if it is falsifiable, in other words if anyone can verify it or invalidate it.” This is why “the history of scientific ideas is an excellent school of doubt, humility, rigour, honesty and the critical spirit, which are prime virtues in the service of a passion for knowledge.”
It is important to stress here how the two facets, observation and theory, are intimately related to make the invisible visible. Indeed to anyone, the Earth appears flat but now it is evident that it is not as we can see it any time we fly. In the same way all the intellectual construction that went into the development of quantum physics was provoked by the fact that some experiments did not match the theoretical predictions. To make the new physics tangible, one had to develop new tools to reach very small scales, an intricate combination of theoretical and practical knowledge.
The same applies to the knowledge one has now gained from the Universe. Getting observation tools outside the atmosphere was essential. One should never forget that the feat of detecting gravitational waves relies on the fact that one could detect a signal with a very definite shape, which is about a thousand times smaller than the signal actually recorded. This could only be done through two achievements in which mathematics plays a crucial role: developing precise models of the merging of two black holes, and using the completely new tool of wavelets to do a multi-scale analysis of signals with a precision never achieved before. More should be said on the extraordinary step forward made in medicine through the change of paradigm in biology that followed the discovery of the DNA double helix, and the new world which could be unravelled thanks to this setting, of which there was previously not much evidence.
Therefore the edifice of science has two faces: the regularly revisited process of the scientific method leads to a body of knowledge that gets enriched on a permanent basis and to the building of new concepts, derived from theories, nurtured by data collected through experiments.
Note that, if the teaching of scientific facts can require a certain level of sophistication to grasp the concepts, exposure to the scientific method can start at a very early age in school and be put to test right away, a very important step that schools too often miss.
Coming back to the process of disseminating results, a constant concern of scientists as I mentioned before, the elaborate rules put in place by scientists to publish in scientific journals remarkably reflect their need to validate what they disseminate, using peer review to improve the content made available.
Of course the new electronic means of dissemination represent fantastic new opportunities but also challenges as, all of a sudden, it becomes possible to access information in a searchable form and to compare input from many different sources. Simultaneously, one should note that this increases the temptation of plagiarism and the capacity to fight it.
It is astonishing how much has been accomplished thanks to the understanding brought by scientists, mostly through the democratisation of informed practices and technological objects and a higher level of education of a larger part of the population.
We are now richer and live longer than at any other time in human history. Since 1800 the now-rich countries are anywhere between 18 to 30 times better off. And the list of rich countries is getting longer each year.
In 1800 43% of the world’s new-borns died before their fifth birthday. In 1960 child mortality was still 18.5% globally. In 2015 child mortality had dropped to 4.3% – ten times lower than two centuries ago. And child mortality (children under five) in rich countries today is much lower than 1%!
Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now approaching 70 years. No country in the world has a lower life expectancy than the countries with the highest life expectancy in 1800.
This shows that, when scientific knowledge is put to a positive use through widely spread and shared standards, its impact on improving the quality of human lives can be massive. We also know though that it has been used in less positive ways, and I will contemplate some more problematic cases later on in this lecture.
Let me now turn to the second part of the lecture and talk about power.
In order to discuss the issue of the relation of scientists with power adequately, one has to take into account the various interfaces the scientific community has to engage with, be it the corporate world, the political world, civil society, or individual citizens.
Of course the most obvious form of power is the political one. This was the one SOCRATES was mentioning in the quote from PLATO I made in the opening part of the lecture. Over the centuries the political power has taken many forms: from the most democratic ones, with a number of counter-powers in place ensuring that the diversity of opinions is respected and decisions are informed, to the most absolute ones, where the will of the ruler, king, emperor, dictator or despot, suffers no contradiction or limitation.
Political power is an explicit form of power that affects most people in a given society. In the course of History there are numerous examples of scientists who had to suffer from the hostility of absolute rulers for their declarations, or in some cases just merely for what they represented. From that point of view, the most extreme case is probably the prosecution mathematicians suffered in China during the Ming dynasty, which led to the destruction of numerous valuable pieces of knowledge, and the set-back of a discipline in which the Chinese had been prominently productive for centuries. I will come back to some more specific individual examples in the third part of the lecture.
The power that religious authorities exert in some societies, sometimes in direct association with the political power, some other times in their own environment, can be as explicit. Developing new knowledge can challenge beliefs viewed as central to the strength of a religion by the clergy.
There are some notorious examples of such conflicting cases in History such as the fate of Giordano BRUNO in 1600, burned by the Inquisition, the Church’s judiciary branch, for his claims. Galileo GALILEI was also prosecuted by the Inquisition, because he propagated Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe but gravitating around the Sun. This claim was considered “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture." He had to renounce his view publicly but still had to live under house arrest.
It would be a mistake to believe that these obvious forms of power are the only ones to be considered here. Some other forms are more implicit, if not insidious, and in recent years there have been a number of situations where such forms were the heart of the matter. It is a fact that some actors prefer to act in the shadow, and it can take a lot of efforts to uncover the manoeuvres by which some actions are performed.
The economic sector is definitely a powerful sector whose activity can be affected by some scientific findings. It can activate several different modes of action: from supporting people to challenge the findings they consider offensive to their business (this has been witnessed in a number of cases, e.g. in the context of the damage to human health provoked by smoking) to more direct attacks on people who produced the knowledge, often through complacent media.
And this brings me to another power, namely the press, and the media in general. Today of course one cannot forget also about the impact that social media have. They involve a wide range of people with many different backgrounds, who express themselves quickly, often giving rise to frenetic exchanges that are sometimes difficult to get control over.
Actually, there is one more power it would be inappropriate to forget about, namely the hierarchical power. Scientists themselves are inserted in a system that has to make decisions about people. Earlier I mentioned the peer review system that decides which articles are published and more precisely when an article is ready to be published after possible revisions. A typical situation where hierarchical power is exerted is at the time of a promotion or of a nomination.
I would like to present to you an anecdote showing that, even at the highest level of science, there can be situations where decisions which should be obvious finally happen because of considerations which are somewhat specific to scientists.
The document I want to report on was written on 13 June 1913 in Berlin. It bears the signatures of Max PLANCK, Walther NERNST, Heinrich RUBENS, Emil WARBURG, all very distinguished German scientists. It contains an offer with full salary of an ordinary membership to the Prussian Academy to Albert EINSTEIN, then Ordinarius in theoretical physics at the ETH in Zurich.
The statement that accompanies the offer says: “One should not take too much against him that it happened to him to go too far in his speculations, e.g. in his hypothesis of a quantum of light; without taking some risks, one cannot expect any real renovation also in the most exact natural sciences.” This text written eight years after the Annus mirabilis 1905, in which EINSTEIN made three major breakthroughs, including understanding the photoelectric effect by introducing light quanta, shows that a major discovery can be missed by great physicists. Fortunately their acceptance of risk made his nomination in the end defendable.
Now, concerning the relation of power with other stakeholders there are three key questions: How is the power controlled? How is the power influenced? Who is advising the power?
Answering these questions in some depth would take not just a lecture but a whole course as they touch so many aspects of the organisation of society, and cannot be discussed without being specific.
Still here are some general remarks to prepare for the next part of the lecture where I try and discuss some specific situations in which scientists are confronted with power and some others where scientists do exert some power not necessarily for the good.
In a democratic environment the first and second questions are typically dealt with through the separation of powers: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches have to be independent from one another to limit the possibility of manipulations by the executive branch. Actually, from one country to the next, the reality of the separation of powers vary quite a bit with regular attempts to overrule it in one way or another.
In the context of this lecture, the third question concerning scientific advice has a particular resonance, because, especially in our modern societies, a number of issues have a scientific bearing, on top of economic and technological dimensions.
Moreover some questions are complex enough to require an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the underpinnings.
Different countries have adopted different systems to deal with scientific advice. I am particularly interested in seeing how the ‘Science Advice Mechanism’ put in place by Commissioner MOEDAS to advise the European Commission on scientific issues will be performing. It consists in a group of seven scientists nominated by a body that is independent from the European Commission with the power of taking up some issues by itself. It is supported by a technical team provided by the Commission and by a network of European academies.
Moving now to the third part of this lecture, I think it is appropriate to consider a few examples of situations where the relation of scientists to power led to effects visible to the public or to actual achievements.
A new dimension, which now affects how one can approach the problem, is the important (if not dominant) role communication media play, in the hands of professionals as well as by society at large through social media. I will come back to this when summing up the lecture.
A dramatic example of the misuse of the fact that scientists are expected to speak the truth took place in October 1914, a critical year in History if any.
On 4 October 1914, 93 prominent German scientists, scholars and artists, including the physicist Max PLANCK and the mathematician Felix KLEIN, issued a proclamation now known as the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three”. It was originally titled “Manifesto to the civilised world”. It was a protest against what the writers felt were lies being spread about Germany’s role in starting the war, its reasons for “trespassing” neutral Belgium and the denounced brutality of the actions of its troops there.
Its purpose was to increase support for the war throughout German schools and universities and to win a moral and morale war. Their intervention was clearly meant to be a manifestation of people who are trustworthy in their relation to the truth.
Here are two excerpts: “The iron mouth of events has proved the untruth of the fictitious German defeats; consequently misrepresentation and calumny are all the more eagerly at work. As heralds of truth we raise our voices against these.”
And “We cannot wrest the poisonous weapon—the lie—out of the hands of our enemies. All we can do is to proclaim to the whole world that our enemies are giving false witness against us. You, who know us, who with us have protected the most holy possessions of man, we call to you. Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”
Even more interesting is a fact that is little known, namely that one of the signatories, Wilhelm FÖRSTER, soon grew to regret having signed the document. And he, along with the physicist Georg Friedrich NICOLAI, drew up an alternative Manifesto to the Europeans. Only Otto BÜK and Albert EINSTEIN agreed to sign it, and it remained unpublished at the time. But it was subsequently brought to light by EINSTEIN. I would like to read some of this second manifesto to you now. Because it is an amazingly humane and prescient document.
“We wish merely to emphasize as a matter of principle that we are firmly convinced that the time has come when Europe must act as one in order to protect her soil, her inhabitants, and her culture. We believe that the will to do this is latently present in many. In expressing this will collectively we hope that it gathers force.
To this end, it seems for the time being necessary that all those who hold European civilization dear, in other words, those who in Goethe’s prescient words can be called “good Europeans" join together. After all, we must not give up the hope that their collective voice—even in the din of arms—will not trail off entirely unheard, especially, if among these “good Europeans of tomorrow,” we find all those who enjoy esteem and authority among their educated peers.
First it is necessary, however, that Europeans get together, and if—as we hope—enough Europeans in Europe can be found, that is to say, people for whom Europe is not merely a geographical concept but rather a worthy object of affection, then we shall try to call together a union of Europeans. Such a union shall then speak and decide.”
Can you imagine that this was written in a moment when the First World War was gaining momentum? And not in some neutral country but in Berlin, i.e. in the heart of Germany, one of the key combatants? And isn’t it wonderful that we have lived to see their dream come true? And not only did we see the dream come true but we have also been able to see it grow and flourish for over sixty years!
Another instance where scientists interfered negatively with the political power has been the period of domination of Soviet biology by Trofim LISSENKO. An agricultural expert, he started through experiments he made on plants, and came to challenge the Mendelian theory of cross-fertilisation. His results were challenged, but what gained him respect and power was the support he got from Joseph STALIN, which he reinforced by denouncing the previous theories as “bourgeois” and claiming his being “proletarian”.
Although, after the Second World War, he was increasingly challenged by scientists even in the Soviet Union, he managed to retain power until the early 1960s. This is an instance where a scientist used his relation to the political power to gain control over the development of a scientific community. Of course this happened in a peculiar political organisation of society, which made this possible.
Another problematic interference between scientists and power occurred in the preparation of the Second World War with a letter signed by Albert EINSTEIN in August 1939 to U.S. President Franklin D. ROOSEVELT warning him of the threat of a German atomic bomb. But it was not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that the U.S. decided to commit the necessary resources.
The story of the subsequent Manhattan Project is fascinating. The team brought together to work both on the design and fabrication of the bomb a hugely diverse group of leading scientists from all over the world such as John VON NEUMANN, Robert OPPENHEIMER, Stanislas ULAM, and many others. It grew to employ more than 130,000 people at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Although EINSTEIN was not informed of the detailed progress, he wrote another letter on 25 March 1945 to the President to introduce the initial promoter of the bomb, the Hungary born physicist Leó SZILÁRD, in view of the new developments.
The rest is History, the first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. A visit to the Memorial there leaves a long lasting mark on any visitor. Some of the documents shown there give some explanation of how and why this site was chosen. Painful!
In his retiring address as President of the Royal Society, in 1995, just 50 years after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on a city, the mathematician Michael ATIYAH, Sir Michael, said: “No other single event has so profoundly affected the relation between Science and Society. It has cast a long shadow over the past 50 years. The most immediate effect was to highlight in an awesome way the moral dilemma of scientists in relation to the military application of their discoveries. Many of those most directly involved in the development of the bomb went on to become strong advocates of restraint and responsibility in the nuclear arms race that ensued.”
And further “I believe scientists should speak out on matters such as these. It would be immoral not to, but, in addition, it shows the public that scientists are not always part of the official establishment and that they can maintain their independence.”
Sir Michael touches here the very important issue of the responsibility of scientists. It is indeed impossible to claim some power without its counterpart, namely to accept to be held responsible. This of course raises the question as to whether this is at an individual level or at a more collective one that the responsibility is to be assumed. The scientific community has no Parliament, not even an organized structure that could exert this responsibility in its name. This makes it very vulnerable as the misbehaviour of a few affects the whole community without it having the capacity to avoid bad actions to happen. A consequence is the need for the scientific community to enforce very strict ethical rules to be followed by every member. This is of course very hard to achieve as it would require a level of cohesion that such a diverse and dispersed group of individuals has difficulty reaching.
I would like to continue with less dramatic instances of interactions before concluding. They all have to do with science diplomacy, in which scientists play a significant role, typically by bringing together people from conflicting countries or communities.
Let me start with the example of the Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) that was created to develop the collaboration on research on elementary particles at the European level. Establishing such an institution was indispensable to reach a critical mass to build an accelerator able to bring radically new knowledge. Initially, it was also a tool to reintroduce German scientists in the concert of science after the Second World War. It has grown into a truly international enterprise hosting scientists from many different countries, in particular countries facing very tense relations.
Another example at a smaller scale but still a significant one is the construction of the Sesame synchrotron in Jordan. This project involves scientists from all neighbouring countries including Israel, hence a truly exceptional instance of collaboration when relations between these countries, and the circulation of people between them, are very problematic.
After these two examples bringing scientists from different countries together, I will end this brief exploration of science diplomacy by considering it from another point of view, namely one that requires that all countries collaborate around an issue that has become politically very hot and is potentially of a major concern for the future of mankind.
Climate change became evident at the turn of this century. In the years to come it will be a challenge for all societies to face its consequences. To give a view on them has been a challenge also for the scientific community. In a sense accumulating enough measurements to establish the reality of the phenomenon required some work and a new level of coordination between various national actors but no radical scientific breakthroughs and no new type of engagement from scientists were needed. To come up with some suggestions to control the process further is another story. Indeed a better understanding of the causes is indispensable, in particular to determine whether the development of human activities lies at the heart of the matter. This requires much more in-depth scientific work and the development of models of another order of complexity.
It was a remarkable move by the United Nations to set up the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in order to bring a much higher level of cooperation and a systematic collection of data with a critical look. The key achievement by the IPCC has been to propose some scenarios for the future of climate change in 20 to 30 years depending on the effective measures taken in the meantime at world level. This very hard work was indispensable in view of the gravity of the possible consequences. Actually this was making a new type of request on the scientists involved in the process and giving them a new form of power. All this requires that the political echelon accepts some form of power sharing. The most difficult part of the job is to obtain that the different governments actually implement the measures requested over a significant length of time. It is now clear that making this happen is going to be a major fight that must mobilize the full international community.
Let me close this part of the lecture by recalling a success of the European scientific community, namely the creation in 2007 of the European Research Council, which I have the honour to serve as President. The ERC was the result of a long struggle by the scientific community to overcome a number of obstacles over a period of more than ten years. Scientists were looking for a simple programme, leaving it to the researchers to propose the project they found the most challenging. A fundamental request by the scientific community was that the responsibility of making key decisions for the programme be given to a group of scientists. This was finally granted but only after long discussions, because this would be the first time that both the European Commission and the EU Member States would give such a responsibility to an external body. Now the ERC has awarded some 7000 grants to scientists coming from about 70 countries in the world as its motto is “Open to the World”. Two thirds of them are below 40 years of age as a result of a deliberate priority given to them by the Scientific Council.
This could only be achieved after the initial request was endorsed by a number of politicians, in particular José Mariano GAGO, then the Portuguese Minister for Science, and Philippe BUSQUIN, then the European Commissioner in charge of science, and also by key persons in the European Commission.
This required creating some lobbying power through two organisations: ‘EuroScience’, a grass-root organisation of scientists, and the ‘Initiative for Science in Europe’ (ISE), which acted as a common platform for learned societies, scientific organisations and academies.
As we have seen, the power of scientists can take many forms, some collectively beneficiary, some others much less so. In recent years, at a moment in the History of mankind when societal changes induced by new possibilities coming from the scientific community have reached an intensity never seen before in such a short period of time, the power of scientists is questioned more broadly by society. The quick widening of the use of social media offers to ordinary citizens a new platform to formulate their questions? or even their reactions. Is the scientific community armed to face a challenge of a new dimension?
Let me now come to my conclusive remarks. After taking into account this new and wider context, one can try to draw some lessons from the examples presented before looking for a consistent way to deal with such situations, in particular when they lead to conflicts between scientists and a form of power they are confronted with.
I see three dimensions that need to be addressed: some are internal to the scientific community, some others concern the whole society.
The first one has to do with education, the key in many respects to a healthy society. As I pointed out earlier, the cornerstone on which the scientific community is built is the respect of the scientific method, and the next generation has to be exposed to it in schools as early as possible. This is probably the only way scientific knowledge can be acquired with the appropriate level of depth, through personal experience and confrontation with the steps required to give it a solid foundation. Education must leave enough room to critical thinking based on checking facts, something that the widespread use of the internet by young people does not provide spontaneously unless they are properly alerted to the possible abuses it makes possible. In order for this to happen, one needs properly trained teachers and a consistent relationship between the scientific community and their community.
This familiarity is key for the power of scientists to have a wide enough basis and for it to be rooted in the experience of knowledge in schools. Of course this will be effective only if every child, and as a matter of fact, every adult has access to quality education.
The second has to do with the importance that scientists must give to the ethical side of their activities. This can only happen if students are exposed to this aspect of the research activity early enough and if suspicious attitudes from this point of view are quickly and adequately dealt with by the scientific community. In the scientific world there is no room for fraudulent behaviours, and scientists should not be shy about going to the root of problems of this nature if they are proven to be real. The question of independence of scientists from private interests, in particular in the context of privately funded research, is of fundamental importance. This stresses how critical it is that sufficient funding be coming from a priori neutral sources, either public or philanthropic with no strings attached. Scientists cannot have too much of their work dependent on sources having a vested interest in the result of the research.
The third one has to do with the overall relations of scientists with society at large. I mentioned earlier that the new media present a new challenge for scientists in that they offer a new interface between them and the general public. Of course it does not have only a negative side as it offers a new space for common platform. It is often referred to as Open Science, as indeed there are some domains where the direct involvement of interested citizens impacts positively the development of science. On the part of scientists, this requires an open mind and efforts to organise this new type of interface. If developed properly, this can create a much broader group of ambassadors but also forces scientists to have a better understanding of what it takes to address the general public, even if these concerned citizens represent a special group because of their high level of motivation.
Let me close by quoting one more time a statement made by Albert EINSTEIN, this time in the Fall of 1920, i.e. almost a century ago. I hope you will share my bewilderment at the relevance of his words today. Here is the quote: “In my opinion, the most valuable contribution of intellectuals to international reconciliation and to the lasting fraternity of man lies in their scientific and artistic creations, because these elevate the human spirit above personal and selfish nationalistic aims.
Concentrating energy on questions and goals that unite all intellectuals quite naturally generates a feeling of camaraderie, which must inevitably bring together true scholars and artists of all countries, though it is unavoidable that the less magnanimous and less independent among them will, from time to time as a result of political and other passions, fall out with one another. Intellectuals should never weary of emphasizing the international character of mankind’s most treasured possessions, nor should their organizations lend themselves to public declarations or other steps that inflame political passions.
Finally, I believe that international reconciliation would be advanced if young students and artists, in greater numbers than before, were to study in former enemy countries. Direct experience most effectively counteracts those disastrous ideologies which under the influence of the World War have been planted in many heads.”
Scientists should not view themselves only as specialists but as citizens conscious that the values that underpin their profession, namely the respect for the truth, the value of exchange, the necessity to doubt and to challenge, must be shared with all citizens. This is key in winning their struggle for power in its different forms.
They should not be shy to speak their mind. It seems that this is precisely what many of them and also many citizens such as Carlos MOEDAS have decided to do by joining the Marches for Science next Saturday on 22 April 2017.
I quote him here: “I’m really proud that the call for the March for Science resonated in so many countries and that a march is organized in my home country, Portugal. About 480 marches are planned –for now– on April 22nd: It shows the broad support across the globe for research and science.
Science is not a dispensable luxury. We need science for the advancement of our societies and to inform our education, improve our policies, and spur innovation. Science, as a common good, also helps all of us to make sense of and navigate the more and more complex world we live in. So when special interests threaten scientific evidence and long-term research and when access to and diffusion of science is hampered, we have to stand up in support of the scientific community.”
He will join the march in Lisbon as a citizen showing an interesting example of interaction between power and the scientists. I will be marching in Paris as a scientist.
I thank you for your attention.