23. May 2019

2019 ALLEA Scientific Symposium: The Morning

Beatrice Huber - Digitalisation

ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, celebrated its 25th anniversary in Bern. On 9 May it was time for a scientific symposium about “Science and Society in Present-day Europe”, hosted and co-organised by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences.

In his introductory words Antonio Loprieno, president of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences and therefore the host of the day, mentioned the three different realities – the public, the private and the science – pointing out that these realities come together. The academies were the centre of the enlightenment and they have the job to advise society. Science acts as a bridge and uses transdisciplinary.

Science is hard work

The first keynote speaker of session 1 was Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council ERC. He talked about “The Enhanced Role of Scientists as Social Actors” and pointed out that the topic of the symposium had a long history but had changed in the last years. From a long time of not having enough information we are now overwhelmed by information including fake news and disinformation. “This is a threat to an informed society.” He stated that people were unwilling to ask for the right information and did not want to get to the deep truth. Are we fighting enough against fake news? “We are not.” It is complicated. Issues like climate change or vaccines are complex and the relationship between people and science too. On the one hand people trust scientists very much as many surveys show. On the other hand, people tend to reject experts. He mentioned that Social Media were still very new and they grew very fast. “We still have to learn this.” Jean-Pierre Bourguignon also stated that how science works – and therefore what science can do and what not – a lot of people simply did not know. They think that if you put enough money in it the problem gets solved. But science does not work like this. It is hard work and not so predictable. In conclusion, he said: “To solve the big problems we need the work of many.”

The second keynote speaker Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Director of the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, introduced what she called the “Anastasia Moment”. She projected an old photograph showing the signing of the armistice between Russia (on the right) and Germany (on the left) in late 1917 and asked “Who is the most dangerous person in this picture?” The answer was simple but not obvious. It was the only woman on the picture. Anastasia Bitsenko came directly from tsarist prison in Siberia where she served a life sentence for assassinating the former Russian minister of war. So that is the Anastasia Moment: the tension between knowledge and the information given. Madeleine Herren-Oesch pointed out that we had to explain science better and that we had to fight for scientific freedom. She reminded us that sometimes very special disciplines get very important as in the case of the University of Mosul: To rebuild the universities many universities could help, e.g. a German university with the “exotic” discipline of Assyriology. “How do we know which disciplines are really important.”

There is trust in science but mistrust in experts.

For the panel discussion József Györkös, Member of the Science Europe Governing Board; Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the European University Association; and Antonio Loprieno joined the two keynote speakers. This panel – as later the panel of session 4 – was moderated by Vivienne Parry, independent science writer and broadcaster. József Györkös briefly presented Science Europe with its 36 members. They are heavily involved with the open access initiative making open access possible breaking the normal TRL process. Lesley Wilson said a few words about the European University Association with universities from 40 countries. One of their big issues is about the role of students. She suggested that we should start to listen to the young students and the young researchers when dealing with the population and facing fake news and populism. Antonio Loprieno sensed the same spirit in both keynote speeches: There is trust in science but mistrust in experts. How can we overcome this contradiction? From his point of view the contract between scientists and the society has to be strengthened. The quality of this contract is important, not the quality of the science. Vivienne Parry asked the somewhat provocative question: “How to talk to people that do not want to talk about science?” Jean-Pierre Bourguignon brought up the topic of anti-vaxxers. A small group has a big impact on the perception from media. “If you do not have a picture you have no impact.” József Györkös pleaded for communicating science in different ways and remain patient. Madeleine Herren-Oesch reminded everybody of the Anastasia Moment. Pictures can easily be misinterpreted. “What I miss is a proactive vision, an offer.” Should scientists therefore be bolder? Antonio Loprieno described the new culture in communication: “From the age of books to the age of the Internet: The centre of attention goes from the text to the picture.” Science communication needs to see that science and how we do research are also changing.

Re-Enlightenment? Truth, reason and science in a global world

Led by three experts from the Global Young Academy, session 2 provided an early career researchers’ perspective under the topic “Re-Enlightenment? Truth, reason and science in a global world.” The discussion was led by members of the Global Young Academy, namely Connie Nshemereirwe, Science and Policy Facilitator, Actualise Africa; Michael Saliba, scientist on sustainable solar energy; and Koen Vermeir, Associate Research Professor at the CNRS. The panellists talked about the values of the Enlightenment in today’s society, both in terms of current digital transformation but also in the context of a so-called post-truth world. “Why re-enlightenment?” This term was chosen because we are now in a similar situation as back in the time of the enlightenment. How can we create confidence when so many uncertainties are around? From the Global Young Academy’s point of view for instance diversity makes expertise more robust. Connie Nshemereirwe pointed out that there are a lot of problems but also optimism. These “problems without passport”, e.g. in migration, are not only European problems but worldwide. So, more diverse input could help to solve them. She also pointed out “we do not reward scientists for the engagement with society”. Michael Saliba spoke about the tale of two worlds, the one of science and the one of humanities, and pleaded for a more holistic view because all disciplines are needed. If you go back in history to the big polymaths like Aristotle you see that they were philosophers and naturalists at the same time. To find the antibodies against fake news new tools are needed. Maybe more funding for proper engagement with the society should be provided. It's not so much money that's missing, but the reward. The panellists emphasized the intermediate role of young academia between senior scientists and school pupils.

Read about the afternoon of the conference.

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