Published 27 July 2017 by Melania Zauri
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?
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.”