That which we don't understand
Brussels, 27 May 2003
Science offers insight into the changing world around us, yet for many Europeans, including the new EU members, it represents something unknown and even frightening. What can be done to improve science literacy in Europe?
"Once we have a society where science is as exciting as football, … only then will we be truly empowered … to harness science for what we want in life, rather than the other way round," Baroness Greenfield
On the eve of enlargement, the European Union has investigated ways of improving the way science and research is communicated to a broader audience. It commissioned a study into the trends and perceptions of science in the EU and candidate countries, which asked a number of questions about how citizens learn about science, what they think about scientists and the science media, whether science is thought to improve their quality of life and so on.
The findings confirm that around half of all EU citizens, both in present and future Member States, are poorly informed about science and technology. But this does not dampen the expectation that scientific progress improves their lives. Eight out of ten candidate country respondents felt that science "is making [their] lives healthier, easier and more comfortable", while 77% believed such progress would even help to cure terminal illnesses, such as cancer or AIDS.
There was also clear support for European research, according to the report. People felt that closer co-operation between European scientists and countries would strengthen Europe's scientific status in the world. While enlargement puts Europe on track to achieve this goal, not all aspects of science get the European thumbs up.
The spectre of the white coats People have a generally positive opinion of scientists as purveyors of the benefits that science offers society, but they are blamed for the misuse of their discoveries by almost half of the 12 247 people surveyed in 13 candidate countries – and 43% of current EU citizens in an earlier Eurobarometer survey. Scientists were held responsible for, among other things, the 'mad cow' crisis in 2001.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution in the UK and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, points the finger of blame at the widening gulf between the science cognoscenti, or those in the field, and everyone else. "The pride and scorn for science, that saw most people through the 20th century, is now giving way to fear," she said in a recent Guardian Unlimited report.
"Which brings us to the second reason for fear. Not so much science itself, more those who do it … The scientist is usually a remote figure, as far as the public is concerned – more alien than a journalist or politician … The third, and more substantive reason for fear, is the implication of the work that is actually being done." She adds that the "happy confidence" of the 1950s and 1960s in new scientific gadgets has given way to fears of radiation from mobile phones, contaminated food, hazardous chemicals, cyberterrorism, "… let alone designer children, artificial wombs and human clones". Faced with this image in the media, the public are understandably confused and reticent about scientific innovation. Baroness Greenfield goes on to say the best way to quell the fear of science is to "empower ourselves with knowledge so we can evaluate the alarms and the excitements in equal measures".
An empowered public first needs an empowered media, one which is better equipped to communicate science to a wider public. AlphaGalileo, the Internet press centre for European science, engineering and technology, together with the Commission, is keen to set up a European research press agency to encourage and support the increased professionalism of research press offices.