Political populism, with its accompanying “fake news” and pseudoscience, leaves scientists distraught. But maybe scientific research itself needs a reboot.
Research can no longer win public funding on the mere promise of a possible contribution to society. In recent years we have seen breaches of ethics and scientific integrity, exponential increases in research costs, public finances in crisis, innovations that do not meet citizens’ expectations, major scandals (the contaminated blood crisis), near-scandals (the “erroneous” expert predictions concerning the L’Aquila earthquake), political decision-makers supporting questionable research. These things combined have caused a gap between science and society that even strengthened science communications struggle to bridge.
It’s difficult to be a scientist these days. But many of us have become complacent, and forgotten that research should serve the common good. Now our lethargic spell is coming to an end.
The “March for Science” movement is a spontaneous, dynamic reaction to US President Donald Trump’s science denial. The president’s budget and policies reflect his attitude to science, but the pro-science movement has extended far beyond the US. It resonated with the European scientific community, who organised their own pro-science marches on 22 April 2017.
The slogans and motivations varied from country to country but the objective was always the same: to put science and research at the heart of society, working with and for citizens. This time around, we have seen the researchers as infantry leading the action, more so than their generals and strategists. As with the Arab Spring, this movement took birth at a grassroots level, and organisation took place outside existing structures, thanks to the internet and social networks.
Research at the heart of society
What impact have these marches had, and what future can we see for similar actions in Europe? Science crosses borders, and researchers are certainly one of the most united and international groups in the world. These pan-European movements have everything to gain by organising themselves more systematically. The challenge is considerable because governments do not always consider researchers’ voices in societal decisions.
In 1997, Francoise Praderie and her biologist colleague Claude Kordon, led a group to found EuroScience, the European association for the promotion of science. The objective? To create a horizontal link between both scientists in EU member states, as well as with scientists, policy makers and European society. They aimed to create an equivalent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), whose involvement in public debate on science has set a global standard.
EuroScience has had successes, particularly in influencing European science policy. In 2004 it established the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), a biennial scientific meeting that hosts major figures in European research. After Stockholm, Munich, Barcelona, Turin, Dublin, Copenhagen and Manchester, ESOF 2018 will take place for the first time in Toulouse, France.
The media and the science-society interface
Like many other pan-European associations with limited resources, EuroScience has an Achilles’ heel: it has not yet achieved a massive individual membership. This prevents it from achieving AAAS-level recognition.
To increase its scope, in 2013 the association set up EuroScientist, a participatory online magazine. It aims to present questions and views concerning the European scientific community and European political decisions, creating an interface between research, society and the individual.
To broaden the magazine’s readership and improve scientist participation levels in the debates, EuroScience fostered links between grassroots science communities across Europe. These included science activists like Investigacion Digna in Spain, Return On Academic ReSearch (ROARS) in Italy and Sciences en Marche in France. Science activism has expanded in countries hit by the economic and budgetary austerity, and this is where the group Homo scientificus europeaeus (Hse) originated. Its name is a nod to evolution and discovery, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.
Hse partners express themselves through EuroScientist. The Hse readership gathers in the “Hse Cloud”, a virtual community recently created at the 2nd Hse meeting in Barcelona on May 16. Following the example of ROARS, Science en Marche, Scientists for EU, Kobiety Nauky, Open Scholars and Marie Curie Alumni Association, grassroots scientist’s associations are now welcome to join the cloud as well as the pan-European “March for Science” communities.
The Hse Cloud has multiple objectives. It is, of course, a transnational link to help scientists working at a national level exchange experiences and ideas across Europe. It also works to ensure that these diverse communities develop a common desire to promote responsible research practices and a science that is more open to society. Ultimately, the goal is to create a large permanent forum for discussion.
A debate only speaks to those who take part in it. Such a movement must therefore have influence and impact. Social networking tools make it easy to reach a wide range of concerned parties. These tools also make it possible to confront stakeholders. In the long term, social networks will help the “Hse cloud” to open up issues to all concerned citizens. They will support Hse’s major concern: to think effectively and develop a strong future society.
“Hse cloud” members continue to raise issues via the blog. Such public debates will guide EuroScience towards a critical analysis for the common good. Hse is generating, channelling and combining ideas to foster and influence social debate and science policy. It aims to build a mass movement of European citizen-researchers, engaging with major decisions for a sustainable scientific culture.
Luc Van Dyck, Sabine Louët and Gilles Mirambeau, co-founders of the Hse concept, with the kind assistance in translating this text from French of Robin Vigouroux (EuroScientist contributor & PhD student at UPMC Sorbonne Universités)