Society’s Growing Need for Non-Formal Education

Our traditional system of formal education – with a teacher or professor in front of a classroom of passive listeners, backed up with a blackboard and lots of chalk – is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It’s generally good at tackling the basic needs of a fairly homogeneous group of people – mainly children and young adults from 6 to 18 with the possibility of ‘extension’ to college or university for those who ‘performed well’ in the first two levels of the system. But today’s world needs so much more.

In a fast-changing society with substantial technological advancements and unlimited global connectedness, lifelong learning has become a necessity, often long after people have left the formal education system. What’s more, the needs of specific groups of people don’t fit well in the current system and should be targeted in different ways.


Credit: Lamaip/

Photo/Credit: Lamaip/


As an example, we can think of the immense group of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the last five years with backgrounds ranging from an unfinished high-school education to advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, information technology, languages and so on.

There are also many contemporary challenges – such as migration, global warming, radicalisation and inequality – that are extremely complex and need a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. In turn, this requires very specific combinations of skills and knowledge. But the traditional education system is focused on disciplinary specialisation, rather than interdisciplinary combinations of skill sets.


The need for non-formal education

I believe that ‘non-formal education’ is the way to fill the growing gap that results from today’s more advanced and heterogeneous educational needs. Compared with formal education, non-formal education is less focused on the general and overall public needs of large groups in a society. It has been described as a complementary ‘educational activity carried on outside the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children.’

Informal education – which encompasses all acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes from any kind of experiences – is an even broader, but also more ambiguous, form of education. Hence, compared with informal education, non-formal education happens in a more organised and structured way.

This distinction is significant, as non-formal education therefore requires a minimal level of resources to support an organisational structure. It can also be applied to focus on a particular group of people or niche activity; and it can be strategically managed in order to reach particular educational goals for such target groups.

Consequently, non-formal education is mainly provided by civil society and/or non-profit service organisations, and it can fill the gap between what is left open by formal education and what is naturally transferred through people’s daily social interactions. Given its organisational structure, it can be actively managed to provide educational solutions for concrete and tangible problems. 

Non-formal education has different functionalities. A major one is participant functionality. This means that non-formal education brings direct benefits for its participants, such as skills, experiences and personal networks.

Non-formal education also has social functionality, as it enables people to engage in society and it provides a platform for discussing and tackling local, regional and global problems. For example, in a study of the global scouts movement, I find that the social functionality of this non-formal educational movement is perceived very differently across countries.


Some questions for researchers and practitioners

Starting from the growing gap between the traditional educational system and desirable social outcomes, several questions for researchers and practitioners can guide us to shape the future of non-formal education:

  • First, can a full-scale non-formal education sector exist in addition to the traditional formal education system without both sectors being in too strong competition for the same resources?
  • Second, can both sectors strengthen each other, where the strengths of one sector compensate for the weaknesses of the other? For example, should the ‘efficiency’ of one sector be traded-off against the more adjusted targeting of the advanced and heterogeneous needs of the other sector? Or can accreditation, certification, evaluation of both sectors and the skills acquired in each sector be integrated. A starting point lies in a seminal set of first recommendations.
  • Third, how can non-formal education organisations – which are often operational as non-profit and/or social profit organisations – increase their legitimacy and public reputation to assure long-term resources for their mission and achievements?
  • Fourth, what steps should researchers, funding organisations and policy-makers take to quantify the needs and benefits of non-formal education? More and better data on non-formal education – similar to the PISA efforts for formal education – would be likely to result in more robust scientific insights and better policy recommendations.
  • Finally, how can participants/students improve their short- and long-term wellbeing through combining both educational systems in their lifelong learning path?

Scientists Should Actively Participate in Public Debate

At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, this year more than in any other year, scientists felt the need to speak up about the way that public policy is intervening in the future of scientific research.

Now, as during other times in our history, we are facing political scientific disbelief and discussion around scientific observations. Notorious predecessors that faced a much harsher fame were Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei, whose theories nobody would doubt nowadays.  At the meeting there was enough time for informal chats and public debates around these themes. As a participant of the press talk organised by Deutsche Welle, I brought forward the idea that it is our responsibility, as scientists, to be engaged with society. I would imagine this a bit like in Athens in the old days, when citizens had a say in matters that concerned them. Scientists should be communicators, and they should be responsible for being able to give back to society and to politics –something that is probably expect from us. We organise marathons, cake bake events and many more initiatives to raise money for research, but what do we do next? Do we communicate effectively where the money raised ended up?


Melania Zauri and Aurelio Nuño Mayer, Secretary of Education, Mexico, during a Press Talk at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Melania Zauri and Arturo Borja Tamayo, Director of International Cooperation, CONACYT (National Council of Science and Technology), Mexico, during a Press Talk at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Most of the basic and some of the applied research is funded through public money coming from the European Research Council in Europe or the National Institutes of Health in the USA, to name some examples. This means that taxpayers were subject to some form of deductions in their wages to support science. It would be ideal if scientists themselves felt the responsibility to communicate in turn with citizens and funding institutions, because this would foster more collaborations, eventually share the joy for discovery and ultimately even attract more people into science (for example, in a larger citizen science initiative where people see the clear benefit to society by donating part of their time or body, as in clinical research, for the benefit of mankind). Furthermore, funding agencies request more and more that research is communicated to both specialised and non-specialised audiences. Indeed, the public dissemination of science was another strong topic at the Lindau Meeting, which was brought forward by Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie during his talk. He advocated open access journals and preprint servers. He announced the good news that preprint servers are now, after being already established in biology and physics, also being introduced in the field of chemistry! Among the advantages of preprint servers, he mentioned the universal availability of the research, which helps to expose scientific findings to a larger audience and to communicate it back to society. Specialised science communicators will also have access and can team up with scientists to foster the connection to society.



Ultimately, every contribution will count, and I was honoured to find, while writing this article, that my views are shared by Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath as she expressed during an interview in 2010. I would like to conclude with her enthusiastic quote: “Society financed this science, if not directly, then the education and the way I got there, so society should get back what I found. […] And as for making contact with the layperson, I think young people, teenagers and those in their early twenties don’t have enough exposure to science; they don’t know what it is. I myself have been working on this for many years – I give lectures at many different events and to different groups.”

A Long Road to Becoming a Chemist

The path to my professional career as a chemist was not easy but constructive and challenging in some ways. I grew up in a small, quiet and traditional town in the state of Mexico Texcoco. Both of my parents had to overcome severe economic difficulties to pursue their own career in biology. Thankfully, I was blessed with their pledge to provide me a good education.

I attended a private school to learn English and because the academic programme was more challenging. During my basic education, I participated in several science and academic contests and I enjoyed the school profoundly. My generation was the first that stayed at home, there were not more chances to play in the streets or the neighbourhood, because of the numerous cars in the streets and the worsening of security. Then, in the middle school, I attended a math workshop where I learned tricks to do arithmetic operations in a flash and to solve math puzzles. With that training, I was selected to participate in Math Counts and the Pierre Fermat contest. Later, I enrolled in the EPT-UAEM public high school and was benefitted with a scholarship. During my last year there, I was invited to train for the regional Chemistry Olympiads. I was selected to continue to the state and furthermore the national contest.  That stage was meaningful for my further decision to study chemistry since I was selected to attend Mexico’s National Olympiad of Chemistry. This privilege implied a strong commitment by means of travelling two hours to the school of Chemistry of UAEM-Mexico to be trained for the competition, and then two hours more for the way back. I travelled with my mother after the school in an old van provided by the principal two or three days a week during some months. We arrived at home almost at midnight, exhausted but enthusiastic about my training and the hopeful support within my family. I valued that experience greatly because other peers and I received fascinating lessons with devoted teachers and scientists.


Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

Ana Torres in front of the Rudder Fountain on the Texas A&M University campus, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres


After the enriching experience of attending the national contest and motivated by my teachers I decided to study chemistry in the School of Chemistry of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. So therefore, I spent four hours on a round-trip each day to Mexico City to pursue my bachelor degree. Sometimes I travelled by car with my father before dawn, but other days I had tiring trips in the overcrowded subway and the bus, which arrived in the middle of nowhere, where my parents picked me up. Fortunately, quantum chemistry captivated me and I joined a theoretical research workgroup after I had my first course in that subject area.

One year later, I got my bachelor degree with honours and continued my postgraduate studies in chemistry supported by a grant of the National Council of Science and Technology. Usually, there are very few students willing to pursue a career in Theoretical Chemistry in my program. It is worth mentioning that while I studied, my advisor and other theorists designed the Quantum and Computational Chemistry post-graduate courses – indeed some of the lectures were given for the very first time. Furthermore, at that time I started my own family and I had to organise my time efficiently to get a functional balance between motherhood, research and teaching. Therefore, through family shared efforts, hard-work and passion for science I graduated with honours, gaining the M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, whereas my son developed a love for math.


Ana Torres with her parents, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Toores

Ana Torres with her parents, Socorro Hernandez and Pablo Torres, at the National Autonomus Unviersity of Mexico, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres


I became a teacher and mentor for undergraduate students just after I got my Master’s degree. Then, for the Ph.D., I moved to the Materials Research Institute where Prof. Serguei Fomine became my advisor. From him I learned a strong discipline of work and a structured way to analyse the chemical problems. This contributed positively since I graduated in less time than my postgraduate program demarked. After I graduated, I was accepted for a postdoctoral position within the group of Prof. Perla Balbuena in Texas A&M University. Thus, I dealt with almost six months of paperwork to get a scholarship and arrange the immigration documentation for my son, my husband and for me. I arrived in the US one month later than the start date of the programme given the migratory issues. At present, I am grateful for the support and academic guidance of Prof. Balbuena and committed to work hard on my research project. My family and I are partaking this opportunity to grow in academic and personal areas and I shall respond to their great effort. Science has opened me the doors to travel to countries abroad and to build collaborations and friendships. Currently, I am member of the Graduate Women in Science organisation, the Toastmasters club as well as the group of Bible studies for women and I enjoy sharing Spanish classes.


Lindau Alumni 2017 Ana Torres and Octavio Saucedo, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, former President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences Jose Franco and Director of International Cooperation CONACYT, Arturo Borja (from left to right) after a discussion on Public Policy at the 67th Lindau Meeting, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres

Lindau Alumni 2017 Ana Torres and Octavio Saucedo, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, Jose Franco, former President of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and Arturo Borja, Director of International Cooperation CONACYT, (from left to right) after a discussion on Public Policy at the 67th Lindau Meeting, Photo: Courtesy of Ana Torres


The main goal of my current research project is to perform a theoretical study of the interfacial phenomena relevant for the development of new generation rechargeable batteries. Likewise, I will address the confinement effect exerted by molecular sieves, solvents, nano-structured materials or an inert gas matrix over the chemical reactions, which are important for chemical catalysis. It is expected that the outcome of this project would support experimental research that has been developed for both the description and design of battery materials and catalytic systems. Nowadays, it is important to assist the novel frontier materials design (with enhanced features) using theoretical methods and computational calculations before being synthetised in the laboratory. This could be very helpful to optimise resources and facilitate the materials implementation for the manufacturing process of technological devices.

Focus on Africa: Advancing Science to Advance Humankind

One of the things I love about Lindau is that it is truly diverse and inclusive. This is the case from a disciplinary point of view, in that although this is a chemistry meeting, non-chemists are welcome – physicists, material scientists, engineers, and even maths-maniacs are encouraged to apply and attend. And Lindau is also diverse from a national standpoint – there are nerds from all over the world here. 80 countries are represented, as are numerous cultures, languages, religions and experiences.

On Monday morning, I had the privilege of attending the breakfast of the African delegation, a group of approximately 40 students and postdocs from many countries across all of Africa, including Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Sudan, and Kenya. As we dined on fresh orange juice and fried eggs, I got chatting with a few young scientists who hail from Kenya, including Titus Masese, who is a Research Scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan.

Based in Osaka, Masese, 33, has lived in Japan since he was 18 years old, when he was recruited to attend Kyoto University as a Japanese Government Scholar, a programme that brings talented Kenyan students to Japan. At Kyoto U, he received his Bachelors in materials science and engineering and his Masters and PhD in electrochemistry. He is fluent is Japanese, Swahili, Kisii (a traditional language from the region of Kenya in which he grew up) and English.


Young scientist Titus Masese and science writer Alaina Levine, Photo/Credit: Alaina G. Levine

Young scientist Titus Masese and science writer Alaina Levine, Photo/Credit: Alaina G. Levine


Masese, whose presence at Lindau is supported by both AIST and a Horst-Köhler-Fellowship (supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung), and whose research focus is in energy storage (rechargeable batteries), spent some time speaking with me about his enthusiasm for attending Lindau. We also discussed the many bi-directional, multinational opportunities that can be leveraged for African scientific efforts in support of African innovators across the continent and across the world.

This is an especially important time for channels of communication to be expanded as it relates to financial support of science, no matter where in the world we pursue our work. As Masese notes, it is crucial for people from African nations to attend Lindau, because “in terms of science and technology, there is a lot of research in Africa, but it is not as well know, and it is not being [leveraged],” he says. “The Lindau Meeting is the right platform to showcase the research and to find collaborators so that we can further advance the work. Scientists in some countries in Africa don’t get enough funding from their governments, so they come to Lindau, and perhaps can get more funding as well as opportunities for partnerships.”

Africa is the cradle of mankind, and African researchers and research institutions are known world leaders in many areas of STEM, he shares, including anthropology, mineralogy, agriculture, horticulture and energy storage. And yet, “even with the abundance of natural resources and brilliant minds, there’s just not enough research funding,” he says.

In Masese’s native Kenya, chemistry research and application has led to major insights and innovation in the field and beyond, he says. For example, Kenyan chemists apply their chemistry knowhow to solve problems related to designing drugs to combat tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria, and in the field of anthropology, chemists collaborate with scientists around the world on projects involving carbon dating of artefacts. Geochemists here use their talents to understand, find and characterise minerals. There are also cutting-edge investigations being conducted on designing compounds that can absorb and remove carcinogenic pollutants, such as lead and arsenic, from water and other resources, and on tackling radioactive waste disposal.

Another area he is closely following is African research in the energy sector. “Energy storage and finding energy solutions is a global crisis,” he says. “I think African governments recognise this. They also recognise there is more work to be done in this area. So I encourage government representatives to speak with scientists and engineers in their nations, and leverage that talent and knowhow to make a greater impact in finding common-sense energy solutions.”

Although Masese is not working with Kenyan researchers at this time, he would certainly like to do so in the future if the funding is available and timing is right. He regularly interfaces with the Kenyan Embassy in Japan, and recently had lunch with the Ambassador, H.E. Mr. Solomon K. Maina, who “is appreciative of the work that Kenyans in Japan do,” he says.


African Outreach Breakfast during the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

African Outreach Breakfast during the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings



Masese is optimistic that opportunity for strengthening national, international, and intercontinental partnerships for African scientists worldwide will emerge from strategic networking. “The Kenyans and Africans I’ve met say the same thing, whether they are from Senegal or Nigeria or live in other countries: we should form networks to unite together to do something for the African continent in terms of research.” Tools such as Facebook groups dedicated to fostering alliances between African scholars are helpful in this regard, serving as just one mechanism to bind together innovators who are scattered across the world but are members of the African diaspora. “I have met people in different fields and they are not being funded by African governments,” he adds. “We can form collaborations as we try to find ways to convince our governments to support important research.”

The future is bright for Africa’s scientific enterprises, and for Masese himself, who next year will be evaluated for a permanent position at AIST. One of the goals of some of Kenyan expats in Japan is to create a new research institution in Kenya. “We want to build one single institute that will do multidisciplinary research, and do cutting edge work that will be of benefit to the entire African community,” he says.

And his presence at Lindau is playing a role in inspiring him to think big. “We could build an African Young Scientist Summit, like the Lindau Meeting and similar conferences in Asia,” he says with a smile. “There is a lot of interesting research being done in Africa, despite the fact that there are not as many resources being devoted to these scholars. But there is a way to open it to the world, with meetings like Lindau. This meeting can make a difference and serve as an enzyme to advance scientific research across Africa.”

Science in a Post-Truth Era

When scientific issues become publicly controversial, Nobel Laureates have a history of making strong statements at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, starting at the second meeting in 1955. There, eighteen laureates signed the first Mainau Declaration urging world leaders to not use nuclear weapons. The second Mainau declaration, signed by 36 laureates at the 65th Lindau Meeting in 2015 and by 40 additional laureates soon after, encouraged government leaders to take action to minimize the risks of climate change.  

And this year, Laureates, young scientists and former science diplomats made their position known about speaking up when “alternative facts” drive unpredictable political changes in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries. “Scientists cannot ignore what is happening in the world,” Countess Bettina Bernadotte auf Wisborg, President of the Council of the Lindau Meetings, said in her speech opening the 67th Lindau Meeting this year. “Some rulers, and people, seem to feel threatened by progress and the fact-oriented power of science.”

Countess Bettina Bernadotte presented the opening speech on Sunday evening.

Countess Bettina Bernadotte presented the opening speech on Sunday evening. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Last year, a volatile electorate voted for Britain to leave the European Union, leaving non-British EU nationals working in the country concerned about losing their jobs. Earlier this year, US President Trump withdrew the country’s support from the Paris Accord, an international treaty signed by 195 members of the United Nations agreeing to take action to mitigate climate change.

This year it seems politics are a common topic during informal gatherings at Lindau, with young researchers asking international colleagues about their experiences, seeking to better understand situations behind the headlines. Conversations about science and politics continued with a discussion for the media about today’s post-truth era hosted by Deutsche Welle on Monday afternoon.

Although public questioning of scientific information is particularly widespread today, alternative facts can be found even during the Renaissance, said Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings and former president of the European Research Council, Austria. “We have never lived in a truth era.”

When science and politics intersect, a natural part of the scientific method – that scientific facts are not determined forever — presents a challenge for the perceptions of scientific truthfulness. Even when a large consensus of scientists agrees about a particular position, such as humanity’s role in climate change, the iterative process of science leaves uncertainty that some politicians can use to support their efforts to gather more votes. “Elections have become very close to marketing campaigns,” said Arturo Borja, Director of International Cooperation at the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) in Mexico.


Press Talk on 'Science in a Post-Truth Era' hosted by Deutsche Welle during the 67th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Press Talk on ‘Science in a Post-Truth Era’ hosted by Deutsche Welle during the 67th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Marketing campaigns can trigger skepticism and critical analysis, leading to a general public distrust of politicians. Scientists, however, still have the public’s trust: More than 75% of Americans trust scientists to act in the public interest, while less than 50% have a similar trust in elected officials, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center. But when politics makes it seem like the public is losing confidence in science, how do scientists help rebuild that trust?

Two suggestions arose during the discussion:

Citizen science projects, where non-scientists help scientists do research, are one way to help the public learn about the process of science by engaging with it themselves. These projects are also a way for scientists to give back to society, said Melania Zauri, a young scientist from Italy working at the Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.


Young scientist Marian Nkansah, Nobel Lauraete William E. Moerner, and Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings . Phot/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Young scientist Marian Nkansah, Nobel Lauraete William E. Moerner, and Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Photo/Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

In communication courses, Marian Nkahsah, a young scientist from Kwame Knrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, learned how to identify her audience so she can speak directly to them. Scientists’ voices should be as loud as those who are propagating lies, she said.

William E. Moerner, 2014 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and professor at Stanford University encouraged other scientists to talk to their friends and family about the scientific method. He also speaks publically, including at the March for Science in San Jose, California. He said speaking from an established connection of shared humanity could help break down barriers to misinformation.

“Science is not an alternative fact,” Moerner said. “It is something we have to use if we want to push our future forward.”

Why and How Should We Communicate Economics?

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings


Advice for young economists by Bob Denham and Romesh Vaitilingam

Communicating economics to audiences beyond the ivory tower has never been more vital for policy and public debate – nor have there been more opportunities to reach those wider readerships. This column provides some advice for the younger generation of economists.

It should be obvious why communicating economics matters: take any big issue of our time and even the slightest scratch beneath the surface will reveal the economics underneath.

What is less obvious is why economists themselves need to be better communicators. Isn’t that the job of the media? Isn’t that the job of the communications department at their university or research group? In our work at the intersection between economists, the media and policy-makers, we have found all too often that economists don’t think it is their job to communicate.

But if it’s not their job, then whose is it? Last year saw economists’ expert advice ignored by large chunks of the public as they voted first for Brexit in the UK and then for Donald Trump as American president. Whoever is responsible for communicating economics is falling short.

We believe that economists – including the younger generation – can and should do more to communicate their analysis and evidence to a wider audience. Understanding why and how to develop an effective communications strategy is not hard. What’s more, the communication opportunities offered by the internet and social media make it easier than ever to reach readers who will value your insights.

VoxEU – the Centre for Economic Policy Research portal for research-based policy analysis and commentary for leading economists – as well as the blog of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings are good starting points for young economists wanting to write about their research for readers beyond their narrow specialism.

Founded ten years ago, the site features daily columns by established and emerging members of the profession, which are accessed by a wide range of readers. The main target audiences in academia, thinktanks, finance ministries and other government departments, central banks, international organisations and the media usually have at least a little economics training. But the idea is to avoid the equations and write in a succinct and readable way, with the key findings and policy implications upfront.

Similar ‘multi-authored blogs’ open to new contributors include Ideas for India and The Long Run, recently established by the Economic History Society – as well as several sites in languages other than English, including the influential Nada es Gratis in Spain, and the original economics policy portal Italy’s La Voce, first set up by Tito Boeri in 2002.

One of the best guides to using the new technologies to communicate with an even broader audience has just been published as book by current and former members of the London School of Economics (LSE) blog team, Communicating Your Research with Social Media: A Practical Guide to Using Blogs, Podcasts, Data Visualisations and Video.

The LSE blogs themselves – which cover economics, business and politics in a number of regions of the world – are written at the level of, say, The Economist or Financial Times, and are generating a broad global readership. The editors are very open to ideas from young researchers looking to try their hand at writing for non-specialist readers.

An overview of the LSE team’s advice on blogging can be found on the LSE Impact blog here; and their list of ten ways to use social media to get your research noticed is here.

More advice on communicating economics through blogs, Twitter and so on is on the new website that we launched earlier this year, including this piece on getting your work seen and understood outside academia by economic historian Judy Stephenson.

Of course all the principles of effective research communication go back well before the internet became ubiquitous. Whatever the communication channel, the best place to start is to write a short summary of the key findings of your research in a way that’s accessible and appealing to someone who isn’t trained in economics – something that you’d be happy to give to your mother or a non-economist friend.

The notes we’ve long used on how to write a press release or ‘media briefing’ summarising your working paper or conference presentation are here; and economics teacher Mariana Koli gives her tips on how to listen, know your audience and avoid jargon are here.

Finally, we should mention film and video as tools for communicating economics. Video Vox carries short films made for a number of organisations, including Lindau, the most recent of which collects advice for young economists from Nobel laureates.

Our communicating economics website features a series of posts on making videos, as well as how to perform well in front of camera whether you’re being interviewed by colleagues or a big broadcast organisation like the BBC.

We welcome requests for advice on communicating economics, whether in written, audio or visual form and off- or online – and we look forward to meeting the young economists of the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in August. If you’re tweeting, remember to use the hashtag! #LiNoEcon

The Impact of Fundamental Science on Researchers and Society

It was not surprising that after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 some of the most frequently asked questions were “What can we use your research for?” and “Does it have any application?”. These questions may have different origins: First, for non-experts the research honoured with this prize is very difficult to grasp because it is so abstract. Thus, having a (pseudo)application or a visualisation of the research can be powerful. It is no surprise that the “nano-car” received such widespread recognition. The human mind tends to seek some kind of concrete example to help them understand abstract concepts. Second, society finds that research of any kind should have at least some sort of accountability towards its funders, which is oftentimes the public. Third, in a world where we face many challenges, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to see how such research contributes to solving daily problems around us (be it hunger, war, energy, climate change, health, etc.). This “missing link” can lead to frustration and provoke the desire to see immediate benefits and products that improve daily life. Today, an increasing number of aspects of life are put under the scrutiny of innovation, productivity and economic measures. It is thus getting more and more difficult to justify research that has no immediate gain. Fundamental research as such thus seems to be locked in a fight for funding, for professorships and sometimes even for its existence.

The term fundamental science or research as opposed to applied research is used herein to describe research without an immediate apparent value, application or product in mind, often also referred to as basic research. Oftentimes, it sets out to answer a specific (set of) question(s). For this kind of research the following criteria are essential: (1) its outcome is often unknown, (2) the researcher is working at the frontier of knowledge (no one has done anything similar before) and (3) the research extends current knowledge. The research efforts that won this year’s Nobel Prize, but also the discovery of gene editing and experiments conducted at CERN, are excellent examples of this kind of research.


#LiNo17 participant Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

#LiNo17 participant Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski


In times of tightening budgets for research and increasing economisation of universities and research outputs in coordination with increased student numbers, fundamental research has been facing scrutiny and has been under attack. This is not necessarily bad as such scrutiny and scarcity of resources could arguably increase quality of research. However within these discussions, some beneficial aspects and effects of fundamental science tend to be forgotten. Hence, I would like to highlight how fundamental science shapes its practitioners and impacts society. Fundamental research is a school of life and plays an important role in fostering critical thinking and creativity. Fundamental science further benefits society, for example, by generating knowledge, by enabling unexpected long-term applications, by forming independent and critical citizens and sometimes by supporting leadership and teaching. For fundamental research to be effective, aspects like credibility in a post-factual world are paramount. It is also critical that researchers and a public that is willing to listen are equal partners in dialogue. To enable such a dialogue, the social competence of researchers becomes important. It is the researcher’s responsibility to actively go out and tell the public why scientists do what they do, what the benefits are and why fundamental research is so important. The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings have been playing an essential role in this for decades. In addition, Nobel Laureates are often visionaries of their times and inspiring role-models for both successful approaches in research and experts in the social competences and communication that are so important for the dialogue with the general public.


Impact on students

Fundamental science in the way it has been set up since the advent of universities is first and foremost an educational experience for the student. Doing a Ph.D. is often a transformative process and has an immense influence on personal development. This transformative experience is directly linked to the nature of fundamental research. Three aspects are worth highlighting in this context: (1) social toolbox/character formation, (2) critical and analytical thinking and (3) creativity.

One can form character through different tools and approaches. While desirable character traits change with time and are a matter of public debate, there are certain traits that are associated with being successful in life: resilience, frustration tolerance, knowledge of your own limitations, grit, integrity and reliability. Scientific research is challenging and can be very frustrating. As one sets out to learn the basic tools and skills needed to be a successful researcher, one is immediately confronted with one’s own limitations, frontiers of personal but also general knowledge. Many students, although used to writing small pieces of scientific work, have never conducted independent intellectual work before. Doing so is very hard and even more so frustrating. Besides increased anxiety and a feeling of inadequacy, many students feel unhappy about their chosen work as they are not prepared for the stress and frustration that comes with it. Overcoming the daily challenges of research requires hard work, resilience, dedication and persistence and contributes to the education of responsible, independent global citizens.

Furthermore, science has a very high standard and code of conduct at its core. This teaches students integrity and reliability. Appropriate supervision and coaching can be paramount to a student’s success. If one talks to successful Ph.D. students that had a lot of freedom during their doctoral years, they will often say that the first year felt like a lost year: “I did not have a clue how to do research”, “I was so inefficient in the beginning” or “I did not know why and how I should be doing research”. By talking further, it often becomes apparent that even though scientifically this initial period of time might feel “unproductive”, it actually was a period of fundamental transformation of a person’s thinking and provided him or her with the toolbox necessary for research. And it is this aspect, in my opinion, that makes fundamental research valuable as an educational experiment that goes far beyond research itself.


Michael Lerch is currently carrying out his doctoral research in the laboratory of Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

The doctoral candidate develops molecular photoswitches that can control biological functions. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski


However, persistence, resilience and hard-work will not bring you all the way. Mental capabilities such as discipline of mind as well as critical and analytical thinking are also of crucial importance. What is taught at university is thus essential for further success in research. The approach to fundamental research makes all the difference between being productive and losing sight of a goal and purpose. This approach, together with the mental, social and intellectual tools that come with it, is something that needs to be taught to younger students and researchers. Take responsibility for yourself, be proactive, choose what you are working for, know why you have chosen this and be able and willing to defend this in front of others. This is not only a scientific education, but in many ways also a political one: learn to not just accept facts as such, but verify them as well as possible, realise the importance of perseverance and that nothing that really matters comes without effort, and build resilience. That does not mean that with having the right approach to research doing it on a daily basis becomes easy – far from it. But having a framework to understand why one is doing something and what it can lead to can help build the resilience needed to succeed not only in science but also in life. In addition, fundamental scientific research is much too frustrating if you do not have the mental and scientific toolbox to at least achieve “mini” victories by reaching intermediate milestones that are publishable and that allow you to feel productive in a certain way. This is also the reason why it is generally advisable to learn from the best practitioners in the field.

Finally, creativity is essential. In physical sciences, where most experiments fail, creativity keeps research going, helps us to see the problems faced each time from a different angle, allows us to come up with new ideas and look at the subject under investigation in ways no-one has ever looked at before.


Impact on society

The educational transformation achieved through research described above is important not just for the researcher but also for society. The majority of trained professionals will spill over from academia into other areas of work including industry, consultancy and services. Transferrable skills are important here. Beyond the oft-quoted skills such as presenting, supervision and time-management, exposure to fundamental research is, to a much greater extent, fundamental training in thinking and behaviour, which has benefits for society. Unfortunately, these aspects are often overlooked, because it is so difficult to make non-scientists understand what it really means to conduct fundamental research.

Our places of work are in the midst of ongoing changes. Technological advances are transforming our environment and the way we work and live. Industry 4.0 and advances in automation and artificial intelligence will make knowledge workers more important. The tools and skills acquired through research allow us to find our way in such an environment. Purely economically speaking, the knowledge and skills gained make researchers useful in a broad variety of positions and empower them to be productive and independent workers who make novel discoveries. In addition, beyond the immediate philosophically beneficial gain of knowledge, the answers found through fundamental research are often picked up later in a completely unrelated context and can lead to impressive applications: LCD displays, photodynamic therapy and green fluorescent protein, to name but a few.

The academic world is international with many researchers studying abroad, visiting and experiencing different cultures and regions of the world. With increasing regionalism and the growing importance of nation-states, cultural understanding and global ties are essential. It is then also the openness to new things and the ability to work in multicultural and international teams that make researchers highly valuable additions for employers.


Michael studies molecular photoswitches that can control biological functions. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski

Michael in the Feringa lab at the University of Groningen. Photo/Credit: Dusan Kolarski



It is important to regularly reflect on the role scientists play in society and on the training that students receive. When fighting for the importance and relevance of fundamental scientific research, researchers have to focus on the aspects discussed and make clear to lay people that fundamental science can make a difference. They also need to explain that research not only has a purpose per se but also that, if done right, it can have tremendous additional beneficial effects, which spill over into our society and impact our future.

Nonetheless, fundamental science also faces challenges from within: researchers need to be more realistic and transparent when communicating goals and practices to a general audience. For an understanding and listening audience, one needs trust. This trust, however, is difficult to build, especially if scientific evidence becomes opinion. Overpromising will certainly not help here. Researchers need to carefully evaluate when and in what way they promote their work and science in general. For parts of society that understand the scientific method, it is necessary and effective to talk about the process of research and why researchers do it instead of just talking about impacts and applications. For other parts of society that lack such an understanding, however, it will be more effective to fight for science without explaining what and why one does something,and this challenges fundamental science: it will always depend to a certain extent on funding sources that need to be satisfied. Scientists need to be aware of this and develop the necessary arguments and the social tact to promote their work. Fundamental scientists are exposed to the frontiers of knowledge on a daily basis. This is sometimes a tough but very often also a rewarding thing to do (playground-analogy). But most importantly, it shapes us and forces us to think beyond boundaries. Many of the leading scientists of the current and past generations have done so during the Lindau Meetings and will also do so this year!

OPCW: Stopping Chemical Warfare

More than one hundred years after the first massive chemical attack, chemical warfare has lost none of its horror: as recently as on 4 April 2017, the town of Khan Shaykhun in western Syria suffered a severe chemical attack with nerve gases including sarin: more than 70 victims were killed and hundreds injured. The pictures of the dead children of Khan Shaykhun moved the world and led to an US airstrike against Syrian government forces. The Khan Shaykhun attack was the deadliest use of nerve gas in Syria since the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The death toll then ranged from hundreds to thousands. Both towns had been held by rebel forces at the time of the attacks.

This horrific event in August 2013 set in motion a massive train of events: First, the US and French governments seriously considered airstrikes against Syrian government forces even then. Next, with the help of Russian diplomacy, an UN resolution was adopted that demanded of the Syrian government to declare its entire chemical weapons arsenal and cooperate in its destruction. Finally in October 2013, teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) went to Syria and destroyed all declared Syrian chemical weapons, with the help of several western governments plus Russia and China, by mid-2014.


The OPCW operates through inspections, testing, removal and later destruction of chemical weapons. This picture shows an inspection exercise in March 2017. Photo: OPCW , CC BY-NC 2.0

The OPCW operates through inspections, testing, removal and later destruction of chemical weapons, with the help of its member states and private contractors. This picture shows an OPCW inspection exercise in March 2017. Photo: OPCW , CC BY-NC 2.0


Here’s the exact sequence of events: on 1 October 2013, the OPCW began its preliminary inspections of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the actual destruction operation began on 6 October – and on 11 October, the OPCW was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize by the Oslo Nobel Committee “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”, mentioning the “recent events in Syria” explicitly. The OPCW was founded to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into force in April 1997 “to eliminate the possibility of developing, producing, using, stockpiling or transferring these dreadful weapons forever,” as the OPCW stated in 2016. It is not a United Nations organisation, but it closely cooperates with the UN.


OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü. He was already DG when his organisation received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: J. Patrick Fischer, CC BY-SA 4.0

OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü. He was already DG when his organisation received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize – and he will participate in #LiNo17. Photo: J. Patrick Fischer, CC BY-SA 4.0

As later attacks with nerve agents made clear: the Syrian government either hadn’t declared all its stockpiles in 2013, or new agents had arrived in Syria in the meantime. Already in July 2016, the Director General Ahmet Üzümcü issued a written statement casting doubt on the Syrian government’s stockpile declaration, which had just undergone some amendments. He went on: “In particular, the lack of original documentation and access to senior leadership within the Syrian chemical weapons programme has precluded the secretariat from understanding the full scope of activities. In addition, some explanations were not scientifically or technically plausible.”

After the April 2017 attack, the OPCW stated that their own analyses “indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance,” and that “the analytical results already obtained are incontrovertible.” The OPCW is prepared to send inspectors back to Syria, but the current security situation doesn’t allow their return: In May 2014, one of four inspection vehicles was hit by an explosive charge and the mission was aborted. Government and rebel troops blamed each other.

Scientists are not only helping the OPCW to destroy chemical weapons, they are also working on new therapies against nerve agents post-exposure. There are some active substances against nerve gas poisoning already, but they can have serious side effect: an infusions of pralidoxime for instance can lead to respiratory or cardiac arrest if given too quickly. However, in the treatment of nerve agent poisoning speed is of essence to prevent asphyxiation. Now enzymes are known to act very fast (the fastest can perform a million reactions per second – and that’s exactly what’s needed in case of nerve gas poisoning: hundreds of nerve agent molecules need to be broken down each second. So researchers started looking for enzymes to ‘hydrolyse’ sarin, i.e., to break it down in water.

In the lab or on destruction sites, sarin is easily hydrolysed, but only under high temperatures that cannot be applied to the human body. Finally, the researchers found their enzymes in an unlikely place: in fields that had been treated with pesticides similar to nerve agents. Sarin originally had been invented as a pesticide, so it’s not surprising that similar chemicals are used in agriculture. Now some soil bacteria that had been sprayed with these substances repeatedly in large quantities found a strategy to hydrolyse these agents. A proof-of-concept study in Germany and Israel with anaesthesized guinea pigs showed that all animals survived after first being poisoned with a nerve agent and then being treated with the new, improved therapy based on soil bacteria enzymes.


Painting with the title 'Gassed' by John Singer Sargent, depicting the suffering of chemical weapons survivors in World War I. Location of the painting: Imperial War Museum London, Source: Google Cultural Institute, License: public domain

Painting with the title ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent, depicting the suffering of chemical weapons survivors in World War I. Location of the painting: Imperial War Museum London, Source: Google Cultural Institute, License: public domain


The first ever massive nerve gas attack against humans happened during World War I. Even one hundred years later, the reports on the slow death from chlorine, mustard or phosgene gas are heartbreaking to read. This particular horror of the trenches made blatantly obvious that this was not only the first global war, but also the first total war: a war against soldiers and civilians alike, disregarding international law. And indeed, many civilians suffered from gas attacks when the wind blew deadly clouds into their villages.

The use of chemical weapons in war started in 1914 with small amounts of tear gas used by the French and German army. But as of 1915, the German side used large amounts of chlorine gas against enemy troops, both on the western and eastern front. The Entente governments claimed that these attacks were a violation of the Hague Declaration against the use of ‘asphyxiating poisonous gases’, but the Germans argued that the Hague treaty had only banned chemical shells and not gas projectors – that’s actually splitting hairs, because gas projectors were just as deadly (and both sides used gas shells later on in the war).

The first large-scale chemical attack was launched on April 22, 1915 by the German troops in Ypres, Belgium, against Canadian and French colonial troops. As described by author Denis Winter, dying of asphyxiation after a chemical attack could take up to 48 hours. The survivors were often blinded for life and also had to live with severely damaged lungs. The Ypres chlorine gas attack had been planned by later Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber – while his wife Clara Immerwahr, the first woman ever to receive a doctorate in chemistry in Germany, became a staunch pacifist. After the Ypres attack, she killed herself with her husband’s service pistol. He immediately set off to the eastern front to coordinate the next attack.

As we have seen, the history of chemical weapons is a history of tragedies. Thanks to the OPCW, 90 percent of the world’s – declared – chemical weapons stockpiles have now been destroyed.

Ahmet Üzümcü, the OPCW Director General, will take part in the 2017 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, and he will participate in the panel discussion ‘Ethics in Science’ on Friday, 30 June on Mainau Island in Lake Constance.


Halabja Memorial commemorating the thousands dead and wounded after one of the deadliest attack with chemical weapons on the Kurdish population of Halabja by the Iraqi army in 1988. Photo: Kurdish Daily News

Halabja Memorial commemorating the dead and wounded in one of the deadliest attacks with chemical weapons ever: In March 1988, the Iraqi army killed several thousand civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq War. In the foreground is a statue of a dead woman with her dead baby whose photo became the symbol of this atrocious attack. Photo: Kurdish Daily News, 2017


Science in Mexico: Long Tradition, Bright Future

Two stelae from Monte Alban, an archaeological site in Oaxaca in south Mexico. These stelae contain what is thought to be one of the oldest calendar signs from Mesoamerica. Image: Siyajkak, CC BY-SA 3.0

Two stelae from Monte Alban, an archaeological site in Oaxaca in south Mexico. These stelae contain what is thought to be one of the oldest depiction of calendar signs from Mesoamerica. Image: Siyajkak, CC BY-SA 3.0

Did you know that Mexico’s first university was founded already in 1551? Or that today’s Mexico is the largest flat-screen TV manufacturer in the world? Mexico has a long and varied tradition of science and technology. The Olmec civilization invented the number zero. Mayan mathematicians and astronomers have perfected its use, for instance in the famous Mayan calendar: this calendar was crucial for determining seedtimes, rainy seasons, festivities, and much more.

On the one hand, there are particularly Mexican topics, like the research of Mayan, Olmec and Aztec civilizations, or the exploration of the Chicxulub crater. The American Nobel Laureate Luis Alverez first suggested in 1980 that an asteroid or comet impact was a major cause for the dinosaurs’ extinction 66 million years ago, together with his son Walter Alvarez. A giant crash would result in an impact winter, making photosynthesis impossible for plants or plankton, thus effectively cutting off major food chains. The discovery in the 1990s of Chicxulub crater near Yucatan peninsula bolstered the Alvarez hypothesis.

On the other hand, Mexican scientists have made several significant contributions to international research. An early example from the field of chemistry is the 1801 discovery of the element Vanadium in Mexico by Andrés Manuel del Río, chair of chemistry and mineralogy at the Seminario de Minería (College of Mines) that had been established in 1792 in what was then called ‘New Spain’. One hundred years later, vanadium was used in steel alloys for the first time: Henry Ford applied these alloys to build the chassis of his famous Model T. Vanadium allowed for reduced weight while simultaneously increasing the tensile strength of steel. Today it’s still mainly used to reinforce steel, and vanadium pentoxide is a common catalyst to produce sulfuric acid.

The Model T is an early example of the long-term and vital economic and scientific connections to the United States. Today, Mexico is the world largest exporter of flat-screen televisions, as well as the second largest electronics supplier to the US, notably smartphones and tablets. The North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA, established in 1994, has boosted close trade relations in the last twenty years. And although the incumbent American president had rallied against NAFAT, he now declared he won’t terminate it after all.


The rectorate building (left) and the CETEC towers at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Monterrey Campus, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. Credit: Creative Commons Monterrey, CC BY-SA 3.0

The rectorate building (left) and the CETEC towers at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Monterrey Campus, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. Photo: Creative Commons Monterrey, CC BY-SA 3.0


For the current electronics boom, Mexican managers can resort to a skilled workforce with experience in automotive and pharmaceutical production. As Aristóteles Sandoval, govenor of Jalisco, a federal Mexican state, points out: “All the products made in Jalisco can be delivered anywhere in the U.S. in less than 24 hours, (…) and the time zone is almost the same.” Besides geographical, there’s cultural proximity: Mexicans speak American English, not British English like many Asians, and American culture and products are well known and understood.

Of course, education contributes considerably to Mexico’s hightech boom. The prestigious Monterrey Intitute of Technology alone has 31 campuses in all regions of the country, teaching more than 90,000 students. And even in remote areas like Oaxaca in the south, the founder of the Oaxaca State Universities System, Modesto Seara-Vázquez, found that the local indigenous languages, which are tonal like Mandarin, give his students a special aptitude to learn mathematics and coding. All students here are at least trilingual: they speak Mixtec or Zapotec, Spanish and English.


Computer engineering students at UNAM building a mobile robot. UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities of the country. Photo: PumitasUNAM, CC BY-SA 4.0

Computer engineering students at UNAM building a mobile robot. UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities of the country. Photo: PumitasUNAM, CC BY-SA 4.0

But as Octavio Paz wrote, the Mexican Nobel Laureate in Literature: there are always two Mexicos, one developed, one underdeveloped, existing side by side. And although the topics and players have changed since 1950, this sadly still holds true. The news we hear about Mexico is too often about drug wars and murders of politicians and journalists.

There are places where the two Mexicos meet, for instance at the military-style checkpoint for Intel’s ‘Guadalajara Design Center’, Intel’s only research lab in Latin America. The jobs here are not about manufacturing, they’re about creating chips and apps for next generation smartphones. Guadalajara, Jalisco’s capital, is often dubbed the ‘Mexico’s Silicon Valley’, a term it shares with Monterrey further north. More than 120 million dollars have been invested in 300 start-ups since 2014, with at least 25,000 engineers working here.

Even if the distances seem huge between Intel’s lab on the hilltop and the shanty town below, and not just in terms of kilometers, education can help to bridge this gap. As the city’s mayor Enrique Alfaro confides to the Washington Post: “Graduates being courted by Google don’t pick up a gun,” meaning that poverty and unemployment can make the recruitment by drug cartels too easy. Ultimately, only education and employment will brake the vicious cycle of poverty, drugs and violence. This is why the new mayor is implementing school programmes to encourage STEM training, and why he’s installing a tech zone and wants to improve municipal infrastructure for companies. And on the national level, the 57th Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto announced a new research agenda with increased spending for science and education in 2013.

Mario J. Molina is the first Mexican to be awarded a scientific Nobel prize. In the 1970s, he described, together with his boss F. Sherwood Rowland, how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) destroy the ozone layer in the stratosphere, thus weakening the Earth’s protective shield against UV radiation. The two chemists found that CFCs released into the atmosphere do not decay until they reach the stratosphere, where they are destroyed by solar radiation. In this process, chlorine atoms are released that finally destroy ozone. They not only published their findings, but also announced them outside of the scientific community to stop the further emission of CFCs.

Finally, their warnings were taken seriously and the harmful substances were banned in the Montreal Protocol in the mid-1980s. This protocol, together with the Vienna Convention two years earlier, can be considered as “perhaps the most successful international treaties the world has seen”, as the prestigious Michigan Journal for International Law wrote. For their findings, Molina, Rowland and Paul Josef Crutzen were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In recent years, Molina has been informing the public about the data and dangers of global warning with the same fervour as his fight against CFCs. He is one of the 76 Nobel Laureates to sign the Mainau Declaration 2015 on Climate Change that urges international governments to take decisive steps against global warming. This appeal is now more urgend than ever, as US President Donald Trump plans to reverse his predecessor’s climate policy.

Molina has attended six Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, and has given four lectures and joined panel discussions on climate change. We’re looking forward to this year’s lecture on June 27th, 2017: ‘Climate Change: Science, Policy and Risks’.

This year, Mexico hosts the International Day at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on Monday, June 26th. This day will start bright and early with a Science Breakfast at 07:00 a.m., with Mario Molina attending and Christian González Laporte as moderator, Brussels representative of CONACYT. In the evening, CONACYT Director General Enrique Cabrero Mendoza will give a speech on ‘Science in Mexico: Research and Policies’. The band Mariachi El Dorado will provide a genuine Mexican ambience.


Mario Molina delivering his lecture 'The Science and Policy of Climate Change' at the 62th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2012. Photo:

Mario J. Molina delivering his lecture ‘The Science and Policy of Climate Change’ at the 62th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2012. Molina had received his first academic degree at UNAM and later became an assistant professor there. In 2004, he started teaching at the University of California in San Diego. Before that, he has worked at the UC in Irvine, for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and for MIT. In Mexico City, he set up a center for the studies in energy and environment. Photo: Christian Flemming/LNLM

After the March: Continuing to Speak up for Science

Last month, scientists in at least 600 cities around the world marched to express their support for research and evidence-based policymaking. U.S. President Trump has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax” and questioned the benefits of vaccines. And after 100 days in office, the Trump administration has still not appointed a scientific advisor. 

Although inspired by current politics, the march was largely nonpartisan, as desired. Participants chanted for peer review and carried signs bearing slogans such as “Less Invasions, More Equations” and “At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored.” The humorous slogans worked: that day, science had the spotlight around the world.


In mehr als 600 Städten weltweit, wie hier in München, gingen Tausende für die Wissenschaft auf die Straße. Credit: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

The March for Science in Munich on 22 April 2017. Photo: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

For many scientists, deciding to participate, or not, in the march sparked conversations about how to speak up for science. Scientists generally avoid expressing political opinions. But in this current political climate, some feel that threats to scientific research are too concerning to stay quiet.

Governmental turmoil threatens the livelihood and freedom of speech of academic scientists in Hungary and Turkey. In the U.S., the disappearance of animal records at the United States Department of Agriculture has some concerned about the loss of other federal data. For scientists wrestling with how to speak up for science and engage with current politics, there are no easy answers. But history can provide some ideas for action.

A decade ago, the Harper administration banned scientists for the Canadian government from speaking freely with the media, historical data was literally thrown away, and environmental research field sites were closed. As the Trump administration prepared to take power in the U.S., Canadian scientists helped their North American neighbors avoid similar situations. They helped their colleagues back up their data, and encouraged them  to stand up to intimidation and speak up against political censorship, particularly to support colleagues who may have less freedom to share because they work in government agencies.

Other scientists are responding to the current situation by becoming more politically active. Earlier this year, Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, announced a campaign to be the first evolutionary biologist in the U.S. Senate, with a plan to bring scientific thinking to political decision making.


A sign from the March for Science in San Francisco, California, on 22 April 2017. Photo: Tom Hilton/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A sign from the March for Science in San Francisco, California, on 22 April 2017. Photo: Tom Hilton/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Scientific expertise brings authority to a political debate, but the influence of that authority can get complicated when a debate also involves emotions and value-based decisions. When scientists provide policy advice, it’s important for them to be clear about their role . Are they acting as a neutral mediator, providing scientific information for arguments on either side of the debate? Or are they acting more as an activist, providing scientific information that supports your personal values? Neither option is bad — it’s just important to recognize they’re different.


Linus Pauling, the only Nobel Laureate to win two unshared prizes, was also an outspoken political activist during the 1950s and 1960s. Photo: By Nobel Foundation (, via Wikimedia Commons

Linus Pauling, the only Nobel Laureate to win two unshared prizes, was also an outspoken political activist during the 1950s and 1960s. Photo: By Nobel Foundation, via Wikimedia Commons

Chemist Linus Pauling, the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes, is an example of a scientist who clearly adopted a role as an activist. During nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s, Pauling was one of many well-known scientists who spoke to the media, the public, and the U.S. government about the need to end weapons testing. As pacifists, the group also spoke from deep personal convictions to end war.

In the late 1950s, Pauling focused his message on the global health effects from fallout, radioactive particles released into the atmosphere after an atomic bomb explosion. During a 1958 televised debate, he emphasized the potential dangers of nuclear testing by estimating thousands of children could be impacted by fallout each year. Scientific evidence was an important part of his argument, and he kept trying to return to this topic when his debate partner changed the subject. But in his comments, Pauling also clearly stated that his pacifist values informed his position too.

Pauling’s political activism eventually lead to an international treaty restricting and banning nuclear testing, and his work was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. If you still want to speak up for science, but not be as involved with politics as Pauling, here is some good news: There are plenty of ways to stay engaged.

An advocacy toolkit, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, lists three options: sharing your science story; connecting and collaborating with other scientists; and speaking to policymakers. Communication can include sharpening the message of the intent and impact of your research, talking with journalists, and getting involved with science education in your local schools. Connecting with other scientists includes being on social media or joining a professional society.

No matter how you choose to engage, find something you enjoy. Tell friends about elections that could impact your field, learn about the process of science policy, or be visible as a scientist within your community. Current politics may complicate scientific research, but one sign at the March for Science had a plan for the way forward: “Think like a proton, stay positive.”