Science with Society: The SCISO Project

While some studies report that people tend to have a largely positive outlook on science and scientists in a general sense, public opinion appears increasingly polarised on some specific issues that tend to be more global in nature, ranging from public health to climate change. Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news play a key role in deepening the gap between science and society, and their ability to spread is intensified thanks to the widespread use of social media.

What measures can scientists take to make their work more trustworthy? What tools are available to increase and improve the dialogue between science and society? These are the type of questions that the SCISO Project seeks to answer. Launched by the Global Young Academy’s Working Group Trust in (Young) Scientists, the ‘Science with Society’ or ‘SCISO’ Project aims at improving the relationship between science and society through a series of freely available video tutorials that intend to “enable scientists to reflect about the role of science in society, and to communicate with broader audiences.” The project provides two sets of video tutorials (and quite a bit of bonus material!): Ethics and Scientific Integrity, and Science Communication, for which the GYA partnered with the German National Institute for Science Communication (NaWik).

In this interview, Professor Lisa Herzog, co-lead of the Trust in (Young) Scientists Working Group, explains the vision and mission of the SCISO Project.

 

“Our first impulse was to ask: ‘What can we do to increase trust in science?’, but this quickly led us to the question: ‘How can science be trustworthy?'”

 

Question: Why is the SCISO Project necessary in our current social context?

Lisa Herzog: Our starting point was the fact that in certain areas, there’s quite some public distrust in science. Vaccine hesitancy and climate change scepticism are the most prominent examples. In our working group at the Global Young Academy we realised that you find versions of this phenomenon in almost all countries from which our members come. At the same time, being early-career researchers, we were all very much aware that the institutional contexts of science have a logic of their own. That’s of course necessary, up to a point, but it can also make science a kind of “black box” for outsiders.

Our first impulse was to ask: “What can we do to increase trust in science?”, but this quickly led us to the question: “How can science be trustworthy, what does that take?” When we started looking for answers, we realized that there’s a lot of research being done on these topics, for example by sociologists or philosophers of science, but researchers in other fields such as engineering are hardly exposed to it.

SCISO – Introduction to the project

 

Q.: One of the aims of the SCISO Project is to address the “perceived gap between science and society.” How does this gap manifest itself in practical terms, and why is it so detrimental?

L.H.: Well, take vaccine hesitancy: It can literally cost people their lives! But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The more general question is this: Is science organised in ways that allow it to make its contributions to society? Oftentimes the answer is yes, but sometimes, due to a lack of communication, this fact does not become clear to the public.

Indeed, sometimes there are vested interest groups that actually work to maintain this gap between science and society. Here we can think of the historical example of the tobacco industry working to obscure the facts that their products were either addictive or potentially detrimental to one’s health.  A more current example is when the fossil fuel industry tries to obscure or muddle the messages of climate scientists to create uncertainty around the issue.

Let me add, however, that this is not meant as a call for doing only “applied” research with an immediate payoff. Citizens are also interested in many questions of fundamental research, e.g., in astronomy or history. And of course, the history of science has shown time and again that fundamental research can generate new insights that turn out to be hugely impactful. But that is also something that needs to be explained to a broader public; we cannot simply assume, as scientists, that everyone is as enthusiastic about research as we are!

 

“..if more young scientists communicate about their work, it also offers a counterweight to the stereotype of scientists as old white men in lab coats.”

 

Q.: How do you think young scientists in particular can contribute to narrowing the gap between science and society?

L.H.: We think that young scientists are in a very good position for communicating with non-scientists, for a number of reasons. First, being relatively new to science means that you still remember what it was like to not know certain things, and how you had your first moments of insight and understanding – and that can be quite useful for talking to people outside your own field.

Second, many young researchers are familiar with social media and can use these tools to communicate their research. And last but not least, if more young scientists communicate about their work, it also offers a counterweight to the stereotype of scientists as old white men in lab coats; science is in fact much more diverse (even though it could and should become even more diverse) and this should also be visible to society overall.

 

Q.: The SCISO Project focuses on two sets of tutorials: Ethics and Scientific Integrity, and Science Communication. Why these two?

L.H.: The first set offers tools and arguments for reflecting about the role of science in society, and also about some of the problematic practices within science that we have recently seen and that scientists need to be aware of – without ethical awareness, how can you tell others that they should trust you? The second set is more practical: it’s about concrete strategies for science communication that you can start using immediately. We also have a third set of tutorials in the making that we’re currently finalising: interviews with people who work at the interface of science and society, e.g. in policy advice, and who have agreed to share some of their insights and experiences.

 

Q.: The SCISO Project kicked off before Covid-19 became a global health crisis, but the ongoing pandemic undoubtedly increased the need to strengthen the links between science and society. Has the pandemic redirected the aims/course of the project in any significant way?

L.H.: It has made even clearer to us how important the topics of the project are!

Of course, during the pandemic the spotlight was very much on the need for science communication and science-policy-advice. But take the topic we cover in tutorial 8, which explores the relation between scientific and other forms of knowledge. This is something that researchers in science-and-technology studies have pointed out for a long time: that scientific knowledge, important as it is, is not the only form of knowledge. There is also experiential knowledge, and indigenous knowledge, and many other forms.

What you saw in the pandemic, at least in the first phase, was a very strong focus on just one type of knowledge: medical knowledge from virologists and epidemiologists. But to make decisions about policy measures, you need different forms of knowledge as well, e.g. about the living conditions of families and how this affects both parents and children forced into home-schooling situations. We hope that by raising awareness about the need for taking multiple perspectives into account, we can also contribute, in the long run, towards better decision-making.

 

“..sometimes simply saying: ‘That’s a good question, thanks for it. I don’t know the answer now, but I’ll look into it’, is much more important and leads to much better conversations.”

 

Q.: A topic covered in one of the SCISO tutorials is on improving the relationship between experts and “lay people” and moving away from the so-called “deficit model”, taking into account that we are all lay people in most fields of research. With this in mind, what attitudinal changes are necessary from both experts and lay people to reach more fruitful interactions?

L.H.: What we emphasise in this video is the need for a certain attitude: one that takes seriously that all forms of knowledge are limited, and that, as you say, we’re all lay people in most areas.

I can confirm from my own experience that you don’t have to pretend you know everything; sometimes simply saying: “That’s a good question, thanks for it. I don’t know the answer now, but I’ll look into it,” is much more important and leads to much better conversations with others.

But for many of us, doing outreach work is still something we do as a kind of hobby, in addition to all the other tasks we have. The dialogue with non-scientists needs to be institutionalised, there need to be established formats, which also allow for longer-term collaborations between scientists, citizens, and policy-makers. Of course, these will have to look differently, and include different sets of people, for different fields of knowledge; we can learn from the formats that already exist, e.g. between medical researchers and patient advocacy groups, and see what works for other fields.

SCISO – Interacting with “lay people”

 

Q.: The Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has highlighted a conflict from a quite different nature to Covid-19 that can equally disrupt the relationship between science and society. How is this relationship specifically affected in times of war, and how does the SCISO Project see the role of science in the face of such conflicts?

L.H.: Well, some of our GYA colleagues had to flee Ukraine under quite dramatic circumstances. What was noteworthy, though, was that the feelings of outrage and dismay about this war by many GYA members in Western countries (and I’m including myself here) were much stronger than about other conflicts in other parts of the world.

It almost seemed as if people realised for the first time that scientists can be victims of war or political suppression – but this is of course not true, this is a much older problem – look at the situations in Yemen or Afghanistan. Science is a global endeavour and flourishes on peaceful, constructive collaboration. Many Ukrainian scientists now see it as their responsibility to try to help their country, e.g., by putting their medical knowledge into the service of medical institutions. As scientists and scholars in other countries, we should try to support them, but we should of course try to do the same for scientists all over the world.

 

Watch all the SCISO tutorials

Visit the SCISO Project webpage

 

About Lisa Herzog

Professor Lisa Herzog, co-lead of the ‘Trust in Young Scientists’ Working Group at the Global Young Academy © Sylvia Germes

Lisa Herzog is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She studied philosophy, economics, political science and modern history at the universities of Munich (LMU) and Oxford.

Lisa works at the intersection of political philosophy and economics, focusing on the history of political and economic ideas, normative questions around markets, ethics in organizations, and political epistemology. She also writes for a broader public and participates in public debates about the ethics of finance, social justice, and workplace democracy. Since 2019 she has worked at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics of the University of Groningen.

Lisa has been a member of the Global Young Academy since 2017 and she has served as co-lead of the ‘Trust in Young Scientists’ Working Group since 2018.

“We Have to Be Ready to Support Ukrainian Researchers as Long as Necessary”

Professor Paweł Rowiński. Photo: Jakub Ostalowski

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked the world on 24 February 2022, and the humanitarian crisis that hence unfolded, more than 10 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced within Ukraine, and an estimated 4 million fleeing to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary.

Of these neighbouring countries who have received Ukrainian refugees, Poland has received the largest amount, currently estimated at 2.3 million people. Thousands of them are scientists and researchers who have been forced to seek for a safe environment to continue their academic work. The international scientific community has mobilised fast to provide them with immediate assistance. Among them, the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS), an ALLEA Member Academy, has set up a support programme with research stays specifically designed for scientists who have been displaced by the war.

“We do feel that systemic solutions are needed at this stage,” says Professor Paweł Rowiński, Vice President of the Polish Academy of Sciences and member of the ALLEA Board. He shares the current experience of the PAS in providing support to displaced scholars.

 

“The involvement of the civil society, non-governmental organisations and local governments over the last weeks has been impressive.”

 

Question: Almost 2.3 million refugees have crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border in the last weeks. How would you describe the general situation in Poland in relation to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees?

Paweł Rowiński: The current migration crisis poses a great challenge for Poland. However, the involvement of the civil society, non-governmental organisations and local governments over the last weeks has been impressive. In order to cope with this humanitarian crisis regular citizens have opened up their homes and invited guests from Ukraine to their spare bedrooms or living rooms. In the first weeks of war, when Polish border with Ukraine has been crossed by over 100.000 people daily, many Poles have been serving as ad hoc volunteers, preparing sandwiches or serving home-made soups on railway stations. Now, after over a month of war, the support is becoming more and more professional; however, many activities are still performed by regular citizens on a voluntary basis. We do feel that systemic solutions are needed at this stage.

 

Q.: Can you share the steps taken by the Polish Academy of Sciences to provide assistance to displaced Ukrainian scholars? 

P.R.: On March 1st the Polish Academy of Sciences has signed a new MoU with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. On the same day, within the framework of this agreement, we have launched a call for proposals to support 3 to 6 month stays of Ukrainian scholars at the Institutes of the PAS. Note that under the umbrella of the PAS operate 70 research institutes. The funding was available to all researchers after their PhD regardless of their nationality, provided that before the war they had been employed at a Ukrainian scientific institution. Our budget allowed us to fund 50 scholars and it ran out within 4 days. We have therefore reached out to all international organisations the PAS is a member of to ask for additional support. We have received positive feedback from many organisations which either made a donation to our programme or waived our membership fees for 2022, allowing us to allocate our contributions to Ukrainian scholars at risk.

Thanks to the support of various institutions (see list below) we were able to support additional 20 scholars. All donations have been used in their entirety to support Ukrainian scholars. Simultaneously, many academies around the world reached out to us with their offers of help. We are truly grateful to our friends and partners around the world for their initiatives supporting Ukrainian scholars at risk. Thanks to our partnership with the National Academies of Sciences from the U.S. we are now able to continue the support scheme for displaced Ukrainian scholars at the PAS.

I need to also emphasize other ways of support. For example, the PAS Conference Centre in Jablonna offered free meals for more than 100 refugees from Ukraine. Our botanical garden and museums offered free access to all Ukrainian citizens. Most of our institutes proposed their own ways of support. Many of them prepared free accommodation for numerous researchers, and some researchers were also offered various kinds of contracts. One of our institutes – the Institute of Low Temperature and Structural Research in Wrocław – is in the process of transferring all the resources of three Ukrainian institutes to its own server in Poland. It will allow B.Verkin Institute for Low Temperature Physics and Engineering of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kharkov, O.Ya. Usikov Institute for Radiophysics and Electronics and Institute of Radio Astronomy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine to continue their operation. Moreover, two serious Ukrainian journals: Journal of Mathematical Physics, Analysis, Geometry and Fizika Nizkikh Temperatur – Low Temperature Physics are continuously issued by that institute in Wroclaw. Plenty of alike initiatives are born in other PAS institutes.

 

“Right now we need financial support to provide basic living conditions for scholars who have fled Ukraine.”

 

Q.: Has the PAS received any support from EU-level institutions? Which other scientific organisations have you been collaborating with and how?

P.R.: We did not receive any support from EU-Level institutions. We hope that the EU will follow soon with providing support to all Ukrainian scholars at risk. Many academies set up different support schemes. For example Academia Sinica from Taiwan invited students and scholars from Ukraine for up to 6 month stays in Taiwan while the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has provided additional budget for scholars hosted in the Institutes of the PAS. Thanks to the partnership with our friends from the US. the support scheme launched in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine is again operational. We are also promised to receive additional funds from the Polish government but it is yet to materialise and for now we need to wait.

 

Q.: What type of help is most needed right now, and what would be the best way for the international scientific community to support the actions being taken by the Polish Academy of Sciences?

P.R.: Right now we need financial support to provide basic living conditions for scholars who have fled Ukraine. We have to remember however that many scholars, including male scholars aged between 18-60 years old, cannot leave the country. So we need to find a way to support their work in Ukraine. Many Ukrainian science institutions advocate for remote/online opportunities for their students and staff – open training courses, virtual labs, mentoring programmes, etc.

 

Q.: Given the current state of affairs, how much longer do you foresee that the PAS will be able to provide this support to scholars displaced by the war?

P.R.: The budget from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences allows to fund ca. 150 stipends for 3 months, or fewer stipends but for longer periods. At this moment in time we are not able to predict when Russia will stop the attack on Ukrainian civilians, schools, universities, hospitals, etc. We have to be ready to support Ukrainian researchers as long as necessary. Not to mention the investments that will have to be made to restore Ukrainian science base after the war.

 

Q.: What recommendations can you provide from the experience of the PAS to other scientific institutions setting up support schemes for displaced scholars?

P.R.: Stay in touch with the community under threat. Build your programmes in cooperation with the institutions affected by war. Act fast. Focus on people but don’t forget about the infrastructure.

 

About Paweł Rowiński

Professor Paweł Rowiński holds a degree in mathematics by the University of Warsaw, and doctoral and habilitation degrees in earth sciences with a specialisation in geophysics by the Institute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Rowiński has published more than 170 refereed scientific publications. He serves as Associate Editor for several prominent scientific journals and publications. In 2018 he was elected the Vice Chair of the Europe Division Leadership Team of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research IAHR. Since May 2015, he serves as Vice-President of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

 

The following institutions have provided support for the Polish Academy of Sciences to continue assisting scholars in need:

  • International Astronomical Union
  • International Centre for Mechanical Sciences
  • International Geographical Union
  • Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committees
  • International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
  • International Committee of Historical Sciences
  • International Union of Forest Research Organization
  • International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • International Astronautical Federation
  • International Association of Byzantine Studies
  • The Alloy Phase Diagram International Commission
  • Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research
  • International Federation for Structural Concrete
  • Permanent International Committee of Linguists
  • International Institute of Noise Control Engineering
  • International Numismatic Council
  • International Union of Nutritional Sciences
  • International Commission of Military History
  • International Union of History and Philosophy of Science

 

ALLEA has partnered with the Breakthrough Prize Foundation to support scholars and scientific institutions impacted by the war in Ukraine, learn more about this initiative here. You can also read about other support schemes by European academies and ALLEA partners on our portal Support for Ukraine.

 

“Science Communication Is How Society Talks About Science”

Professor Massimiano Bucchi

The increasing amount and spreading capacity of online disinformation related to critical sociopolitical issues, such as vaccines or climate change, coupled with the ongoing global health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic have all made it painfully clear that we need to become more adept at communicating science within society. Seeking to dissect the importance of increasing and improving communication channels between science and society, we talked with Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Sociology of Science and Communication, Science and Technology at the University of Trento and one of the leading European scholars on the science of science communication.

Professor Bucchi, together with his colleague Brian Trench, defines Science Communication as “the social conversation(s) around science” and he explains in more detail what this definition encompasses. While he certainly believes that organisations should devote more resources training experts in science communication, he also believes that there should be an increased focus on “developing communication and engagement activities that are grounded on the  theoretical and empirical literature about science communication.”

 

Unfortunately, a representation of the public as hostile, sceptical and ignorant is still widespread among policy makers and experts, supporting a paternalistic and authoritarian vision of science communication and of science in society.

 

Question: You have been working in the field of science communication for many years, and you are now the Director of the International Master programme SCICOMM at the University of Trento. Where did your interest in the field of science communication originate from?

Massimiano Bucchi: As a sociologist, I think it is not possible to understand contemporary societies without taking into account the increasingly relevant role of science and technology. I am interested in science communication as one of the keys to study science in society dynamics and their transformations.

 

Q.: In a recently published essay you co-authored with Brian Trench, you define science communication as “the social conversation(s) around science.” Can you briefly elaborate on this definition?

M.B.: Science communication as social conversation is a broad, inclusive definition: science communication is “how society talks about science”, including everyday stories about science on radio programmes, in social networks, in artists’ studios, in cafés and bars. Add to that the novels, pop and rock songs, theatre and comedy performances that give presence to science in public and popular culture and in everyday life.

This view emphasizes a mode of interactive communication that is set in contrast with dissemination or other hierarchical modes, and a concept that embraces all that is being said on a certain matter in society. Our inclusive definition of science communication not only validates activities such as science cafés and science comedy that are oriented to pleasure, but also recognises as part of the wider practice of science communication the ‘spontaneous’ use in popular culture of images and ideas from and related to science.

 

“In many cases, communication by scientific experts (and sometimes even by research institutions) has been guided mostly by personal goodwill and inclination, without much consideration given to the extensive literature available on this topic, to data on public perception and audience intelligence .”

 

Q.: Why do we need experts specialising in science communication?

M.B.: We certainly need resources trained in science communication, particularly for research organisations. The point is not so much teaching practical science communication skills, or training science journalists (for whom, unfortunately, there are very few jobs) but developing communication and engagement activities that are grounded on the now vast and profound theoretical and empirical literature about science communication, its actors, processes and audiences.

 

Q.: In a 2010 commentary piece, you argued that science communication “is not (yet) established as an academic discipline but that [it] could emerge as a discipline with strong interdisciplinary characteristics.” Do you think this has changed over the last decade?

M.B.: Yes, the field has become more structured and established. But the importance of high quality science communication, which cannot be improvised or left to the individual talent or good will of natural scientists or general staff has still to be understood in many research and policy organisations.

 

I am not sure misinformation is the main challenge, at least in the narrow way in which it is usually defined through terms like “fake news”. The broader, central challenge is the quality of science communication: how to improve it, how to reward it, how to distinguish it.”

 

Q.: What do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated about what is done right, and what still needs to improve in the way we communicate science? What would you say is the main impact that the pandemic has had in the field of science communication?

M.B.: We have been through the most spectacular science communication experiment in human history. Several international studies found citizens to be in general attentive to communication about the pandemic provided by health institutions and mostly sceptical of social media, with trust in institutions playing a key role. 

The unprecedented exposure of expert sources across the media has found many institutions unprepared to deal with such responsibility. In many cases, communication by scientific experts (and sometimes even by research institutions) has been guided mostly by personal goodwill and inclination, without much consideration given to the extensive literature available on this topic, to data on public perception and audience intelligence 

 

Q.: What are effective ways in which science communicators can contribute to the fight against scientific disinformation (i.e. on topics like anti vaccination or climate change denialism)? 

M.B.: I am not sure misinformation is the main challenge, at least in the narrow way in which it is usually defined through terms like “fake news”. The broader, central challenge is the quality of science communication: how to improve it, how to reward it, how to distinguish it from low quality, improvised science communication with unclear aims and limited intelligence of the context. Another long-term, educational challenge is building awareness for the quality of information and its value and cost (not just about science) among citizens.

Unfortunately, a representation of the public as hostile, sceptical and ignorant is still widespread among policy makers and experts, supporting a paternalistic and ultimately authoritarian vision of science communication and of science in society. As the literature from the past two decades clearly shows, this representation largely reflects unfounded prejudices.

 

Q.: What advice do you have for experts that wish to go in the science communication field? 

M.B.: Study and read broadly: history of science, sociology, psychology, literature.
 

Q.: Many creative formats, such as Nerd Nite, Pint of Science, or Long Night of Museums have been established to communicate science in a fun and innovative way, mixing knowledge with entertainment. What is your opinion of such formats? 

M.B.: The idea that the format shapes or guarantees the quality of the content today is very popular but probably misleading. Some of the content hosted within such formats may be more interesting or fun. However, we should look at the long-term consequences of such formats in terms of audience perception. Do they convey an idea that science – and science communication – can be easily and quickly improvised? This may not be a very constructive message, particularly for younger generations. 

 

Professor Massimiano Bucchi will be one of the panelists at this year’s Future of Science Communication Conference 2.0, organised by Wissenschaft im Dialog in partnership with ALLEA. The conference will take place in Brussels on 26 April 2022.

 

About Massimiano Bucchi

Massimiano Bucchi (Ph.D. Social and Political Science, European University Institute, 1997) is Full Professor of Science and Technology and Society and Communication, Science and Technology at the University of Trento and Director of the International Master  programme SCICOMM.

He has been visiting professor in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania. Since 2018, he is director of the Master in Communication of Science and Innovation. He is the author of  several books (published in more than twenty countries) and papers in journals such as Nature, Science, PLOS ONE. Among his books in English: Science and the Media (Routledge, 1998); Science in Society (Routledge, 2004); Beyond Technocracy (Springer, 2009); Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2 eds. 2008, 2014, with B. Trench, Routledge) and the 4 vols. anthology The Public Communication of Science (Routledge, 2016). He has been the editor of the international peer reviewed journal Public Understanding of Science (Sage, 2016-2019) and regularly contributes to newspapers and TV programmes.

Recently published articles by Massimiano Bucchi

To boost vaccination rates, invest in trust

Rethinking science communication as the social conversation around science

Public Perception of COVID-19 Vaccination in Italy: The Role of Trust and Experts’ Communication

 

Discussing Academia’s Gender Problem with Dr Nafissa Ismail

 

 

On the occassion of International Women’s Day, we interviewed Dr Nafissa Ismail, Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of Ottawa and project leader of the ‘Women in Science’ Working Group at the Global Young Academy.

She discusses with us her experience as a first generation university graduate, her work researching the intricacies of the human brain, and how she is fighting back against gender discrimination on the college campus, particularly unconscious biases in hiring practices.

“Often I was in a room with colleagues and students sharing an idea and it was as though it wasn’t heard; then a male colleague would share the same idea and all of a sudden, it was a fantastic idea. The interesting thing is that I didn’t initially perceive it as discrimination. I thought it was my fault,” she explains.

We invite you to watch the interview, which is part of the ALLEA Digital Salon Women in Science Series. You can also read more about Dr Ismail’s work on stress-related mental illness here.

Two Generations on Women in Science Day: Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Valerie Domcke

“Because I was a girl, I was not expected to do science. I was expected to learn cookery and needlework”, says the woman who discovered radio pulsars and changed the way we look at the universe, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell (Royal Society, Royal Society of Edinburgh).

She is one of the two interviewees that we brought together on today’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Valérie Domcke (Die Junge Akademie), theoretical physicist and cosmologist who works at CERN and was awarded the L’Oréal-Unesco “Génération Jeune Chercheuse” Prize as a young post-doc, provides us the perspective of a young researcher navigating through today’s scientific system.

We invite you to watch the two interviews for a reflection on the disparities and commonalities of being a woman in science across different decades in physics. Happy Women in Science Day!

 

The Race against Time for Smarter Development – A European Perspective

What is the current state of global research? How has the scientific community evolved over the past five years? What are the emerging trends in national and regional policy agendas for science, innovation and technology? These and many related issues are addressed every five years in a systematic and data-driven analysis by UNESCO.

The latest 758-page UNESCO Science Report The race against time for smarter development” provides an inventory of global efforts to move towards a digital and sustainable society. On 9 February 2022, UNESCO and the European Commission hosted an online event that discussed key conclusions of the report and its implications for the European Research and Innovation agenda.

Global Trends 

Between 2014 and 2018, global research spending has increased by 19.2% (compared to 14.8% growth in GDP) and the number of researchers has grown by 13.7%.  In spite of these promising figures, however, large inequalities can be found around the globe: four out of five countries are still only investing less than 1% of their GDP on research and the G20 continues to account for more than 90% of the global research spendingpublications and patents.

Source: global and regional estimates based on country-level data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, August 2020, without extrapolation

A striking trend identified in the report is that countries of all income levels are prioritizing their research efforts to support the transition to digital and green economies. This can be partially explained by the countries’ commitment to reaching the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. At the same time, there seems to be a strong realisation that rapid transition to a digital society is key to maintaining global economic competitiveness in the future.  

“science is at the heart of our future and should form the basis for public policies that support the entire continuum from society to economy”

Importantly, the UNESCO report urges all countries to further increase their spending on science in order to address global issues such as climate change, food security and pandemics more effectively.  During the event, Jean-Eric Paquet, Director-General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, emphasized that “science is at the heart of our future and should form the basis for public policies that support the entire continuum from society to economy.”

The European Perspective

Although the EU remains one of the main players when it comes to producing knowledge, lower and middle-income countries are showing the strongest growth in research investments and output. The playing fields for fundamental research and commercialisation of knowledge are rapidly changing and the pandemic has exposed both strengths and weaknesses of European research and innovation. 

Luc Soete, Dean of the Brussels School of Governance at the Free University of Brussels, commented that the global pandemic had a strong influence on how we perform and communicate science in Europe: “The crisis has fostered the green and digital transition across the globe, and promoted further involvement, investment and implementation of science.” On the other hand, Sylvia Schwaag Serger, Professor of Research Policy at Lund University, noted “there is still much uncertainty on how Europe’s massive investments [as part of the European Green Deal and NextGenerationEU stimulus package] will be able to make far-reaching change”, and warned against the effects of a possible economic backlash of the pandemic.

“we need to invest in changing our research culture and start approaching science as a global endeavour, rather than approaching it from the national level”

European and global collaboration will be instrumental in our race against time for a sustainable and digital transition and to fight current and future crises. A truly collaborative international research community can only be accomplished when global equity and solidarity are at the essence of our research policy agendas.  As stated by Lidia Borrell-Damián, Secretary General of Science Europe, “[w]e need to invest in changing our research culture and start approaching science as a global endeavour, rather than approaching it from the national level.”

Gender Equality

Source: WEF (2018) The Global Gender Gap Report 2018. World Economic Forum: Geneva.

Strikingly absent from the discussion organised by the European Commission were the report’s alarming conclusions on gender imbalance as one of the major obstacles in realising Europe’s ambitious sustainability and digitalisation goals. Also in Europe, women still accounted for only one in three researchers in 2018, occupied only 24% of the highest positions, and make up a mere 12% of the national science academies’ memberships.

Particularly in areas relevant to the digital revolution (such as digital information technology, computing, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, physics, mathematics and engineering) women remain underrepresented, meaning that they risk missing out on jobs in a future that becomes increasingly digital. “[…] progress towards righting the gender imbalance could be compromised, unless strenuous efforts are made at the government, academic and corporate levels not only to attract girls and women to these fields but, above all, to retain them”, the report urges.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionally affected women in science and engineering. Women in the USA and Europe have reported a 5% larger decline in research time compared to their male peers (and even 17% for women with at least one child five years old or younger), resulting in the publication of fewer preprints and peer-reviewed articles, starting fewer research projects, etc. 

The report concludes that “[s]ome of the radical changes to the work–family balance induced by the pandemic may be here to stay. It will be important for these changes to be converted into policies which ensure that women do not spend a disproportionate amount of time as unpaid carers, homemakers and educators but, rather, have the time and the energy to make their mark on the science and innovation of tomorrow.”

Watch video summary of the report

 

Useful Links

Report website

Read complete report

Read executive summary

European Commission Event

 

Reducing Health Inequalities Is a Matter of Swimming against the Current

Reducing health inequalities is very much a matter of “swimming against the current”, says Professor Johan Mackenbach, Chair of the scientific committee of the ALLEA-FEAM report Health Inequalities Research: New Methods, Better Insights? “When societies become more unequal, as they do in many European countries, it is very hard to stop the health consequences of these inequalities from widening”, he explains in this interview with the ALLEA Digital Salon.

As one of the leading experts in public health in Europe, Mackenbach has dedicated a career to understanding the underlying causes of what makes some sicker than others. He has (co-)authored more than 700 papers in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as a number of books, and is a former editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Public Health. Over the course of his prolific career, he has come to recognise that there are no quick fixes to close the health inequalities gap, but points out that with more advanced research methods now available to understand causal mechanisms, perhaps more effective policy interventions can be developed.

“Only a few countries in Europe have taken serious action to translate scientific insights into policies and interventions to reduce health inequalities.”

Question: In the presentation of the report Health Inequalities Research: New Methods, Better Insights?, you said that health inequalities have no clear tendency to decline, and persist in even the most advanced welfare states.  What are some first steps that we can take to narrow this gap?

Johan Mackenbach: It is indeed disappointing that, despite the growth of scientific knowledge on health inequalities, European countries have not been successful in narrowing the gap in morbidity and mortality between socioeconomically disadvantaged people and their richer or better educated counterparts. This is partly due to lack of effort: unfortunately, only a few countries have taken serious action to translate scientific insights into policies and interventions to reduce health inequalities. However, it is also partly due to the fact that trying to reduce health inequalities is very much a matter of “swimming against the current”: when societies become more unequal, as they do in many European countries, it is very hard to stop the health consequences of these inequalities from widening. While this shows that there is no “quick fix”, a lot can be done to reduce health inequalities. Let me give a few examples: Improve working conditions for people in physically or mentally hazardous jobs. Tackle socio-economic inequalities in smoking by raising the price of cigarettes and by offering free smoking cessation support to disadvantaged smokers. Alleviate poverty, particularly among children. Remove barriers to health care, including primary and preventive health care services, in disadvantaged areas.

“In many European countries, smoking is number 1 among the many factors contributing to health inequalities.”

Q.: The study underlines that there is reasonably strong evidence for a causal effect of the number of years of education on mortality in mid-life. Could you elaborate on why this causal effect happens?

J.M.: This is probably due to a cumulation of various beneficial effects of longer, or more, education. Education in large part determines people’s occupational opportunities, and thereby people’s living conditions throughout life. Education also helps people deal with complex problems, such as coping with financial stress or choosing a balanced diet. In addition to these indirect effects, there is also the more direct effect of education on people’s “health literacy”, which is important for understanding health risks and finding your way in the health system. More highly educated people also tend to marry a highly educated partner, which acts as a flywheel for all these beneficial effects.

“If smoking would not be more prevalent among the low educated than among the high educated, inequalities in life expectancy would be reduced by a quarter to a third.”

Q.: What is it not widely known about the causes of health inequalities that we should make people more aware of?

J.M.: In many European countries, smoking is number 1 among the many factors contributing to health inequalities. If smoking would not be more prevalent among the low educated than among the high educated, inequalities in life expectancy would be reduced by a quarter to a third, particularly in North-western Europe where smoking has become highly concentrated in socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. However, what people need to be made more aware of is not this simple fact, but the brutal reality underlying these numbers. The reality of going to school in a poor neighbourhood, where social norms are often pro-smoking and where the likelihood of starting smoking at a young age and thereby getting addicted to nicotine, is much higher. The reality of living in socioeconomic disadvantage makes smoking cessation as an adult much more difficult. And the brutal reality of a tobacco industry which continues to sell its deadly products to people who already have a lower expectancy and deserve to be better protected. If you do not understand these underlying factors, you could be misled to think that health inequalities are mainly a matter of individual responsibility.

“New methods can take advantage of “natural experiments” in which socioeconomic conditions change as a result of non-health-related changes in legislation.”

Q.: The ALLEA-FEAM report provides a review of a new generation of quantitative methods and assesses their contributions in comparison with “conventional” methods. What are the most important takeaways of this evaluation?

J.M.: These new methods can help us answer a number of unanswered questions on the explanation of health inequalities. Scientists are pretty sure that smoking causes lung cancer and other health problems, but they are less certain about causality in the case of education and income versus health, because conventional research methods are more suitable for investigating the health effects of easily identifiable factors like smoking, than for investigating the health effects of socioeconomic conditions. These new methods can help to fill some of these gaps in knowledge, for example by taking advantage of “natural experiments” in which socioeconomic conditions change as a result of non-health-related changes in legislation. This is nicely illustrated by studies looking at the long-term mortality experience of people going to school before and after a change in legislation, which increased compulsory school leaving age by one year. Those who, in this “natural experiment”, went to school longer, simply because they were born later, turned out to live longer as well.

“While there can be no doubt that people living in poverty on average live shorter lives, and suffer from more illnesses during their lives, it is less clear whether this reflects a causal effect of low income on health, or perhaps has other explanations, such as differences in cognitive ability or personality characteristics.”

Q.: As these new methods are being applied, to what extent are they contradicting or shedding light on previous findings regarding the causes of heath inequalities? Could you give an example?

J.M.: An important “contradictory” finding relates to the health effects of low income. While there can be no doubt that people living in poverty on average live shorter lives, and suffer from more illnesses during their lives, it is less clear whether this reflects a causal effect of low income on health, or perhaps has other explanations, such as differences in cognitive ability or personality characteristics. Ideally, one would like to study this by conducting a true experiment in which people are randomized into groups with a higher and a lower monthly income. However, this is only rarely feasible, and these new methods now help scientists take advantage of “natural experiments” in which people receive a higher or lower income as a result of, e.g., a sudden change in welfare benefits or winning a prize in a lottery. Results from these studies have found some evidence for a causal effect of higher or lower income on children’s health and on mental health in adulthood, but surprisingly little evidence for a causal effect of higher or lower income on physical health in adulthood. Because of its policy relevance, this is clearly an area for further research.

“It is essential to include an inequalities perspective in climate change mitigation and adaptation policies, and to make sure that these policies duly protect those who need it most.”

Q.: In your book A History of Population Health: Rise and Fall of Disease in Europe, you argue that the rise of so many diseases indicates that their ultimate cause is not to be sought within the body, but in the interaction between humans and their environment. What does the increasing degradation of the environment and the worsening climate crisis mean for the emergence of new diseases?

J.M.: I am very concerned about the effect of climate change, biodiversity loss, wide-spread chemical pollution and other environmental changes on human health. New health problems are emerging on the horizon before we have solved the problems of the past, such as the tobacco epidemic or, indeed, health inequalities. Unfortunately, health inequalities are likely to become even wider in the future if we do not take effective countermeasures. Climate change is already affecting the health of people in many low-income countries, and when serious effects of climate change reach high-income countries, they will certainly also affect disadvantaged groups more than the rich and high educated. It is therefore essential to include an inequalities perspective in climate change mitigation and adaptation policies, and to make sure that these policies duly protect those who need it most.

About Johan Mackenbach

Johan Mackenbach is Professor Emeritus of Public Health and former chair of the Department of Public Health at Erasmus MC, University Medical Center Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His research interests are in social epidemiology, medical demography, and health policy. He has (co-)authored more than 700 papers in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals, as well as a number of books, including Health inequalities: persistence and change in European welfare states (Oxford University Press, 2019). He is a former editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Public Health, and has been actively engaged in exchanges between research and policy, among others as a member of the Health Council of the Netherlands and the Council for Public Health and Health Care. He is also a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academia Europaea.

“Climate Action is Slow for a Combination of Understandable Reasons”

 

Professor Philip Kitcher (London, 1947) is John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York. He is a mathematician, historian and philosopher by training, and he is regarded as one of the leading figures in the field of philosophy of science today. 

He has authored over 15 books on topics including evolution, epistemology, pragmatism, and secular humanism. His 2017 book ‘The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts’, co-authored with Evelyn Fox Keller, has been characterised as a “landmark work of environmental philosophy that seeks to transform the debate about climate change”, presenting the realities of global warming through a human-centered narrative to better assimilate the science of climate change and its very real implications for human beings.

On 2 November 2021, Professor Kitcher delivered a lecture titled ‘Why Is Climate Action So Hard?’ as part of the PERITIA Lectures Series ‘[Un]Truths: Trust in an Age of Disinformation’. His lecture took place virtually as part of the Berlin Science Week. You can watch it here.

Question: What do you think is the role of philosophy in the conversation about climate change, and how do you think philosophers can contribute more to this critical conversation?

Philip Kitcher: Philosophers have done some truly outstanding work on climate modelling, posing and addressing the kinds of methodological questions that are the bread-and-butter of philosophy of science. Our discipline has contributed much less to the other issues that arise about climate change, and that is something that ought to be remedied.

The most basic work philosophers can do consists in offering a structure for the full range of disputes. Evelyn Keller and I tried to do that, by considering six major questions that need to be taken up in sequence.  After that we attempted to organise the discussion of each of them, thinking first about framing questions about the evidence for global heating, second about how to assess the impact, third about our obligations to future generations, fourth about how to evaluate the economic consequences of various plans for assuring our descendants a manageable future, fifth about how to answer the legitimate demands of developing nations, and finally sixth, about the transnational democracy that we seem to need (and lack). There are aspects of all these issues that require philosophical treatment.

 

Q.: Climate action – particularly on the part of policy makers – has been far slower than we need it to be, even in countries where the reality of climate change is not widely contested, and even as climate change scepticism is waning overall. What can philosophy tell us about our apparent inability (or reluctance) to think and act in our own (and the planet’s) long-term best interest?

P.K.: Climate action is slow for a combination of understandable reasons. First, there are large numbers of vulnerable people, in every country, including the affluent world. These people worry that their already precarious lives will be devastated by the kinds of things young activists clamour for. Young people are right to ask for attention to the future but, since they haven’t yet committed themselves to a definite place in society, they do not worry about large changes that might impoverish older generations, or leave middle-aged people without a means to support themselves. Second, the problem of assessing the various kinds of futures that might emerge from the different proposals for limiting the rise in temperature is extremely hard. It is probabilistic in character, and we can’t give serious estimates of any number of important probabilities. Hence, lots of fearful people understandably don’t want to see radical change, because they can hope that things will turn out well even if little is done now. My PERITIA Lecture elaborates on this predicament in much more detail, and (I hope) it shows more clearly how philosophy can contribute.

 

“Young people are right to ask for attention to the future but, since they haven’t yet committed themselves to a definite place in society, they do not worry about large changes that might impoverish older generations”

 

Q.: Your 2017 book ‘The Seasons Alter’ is in part an attempt to present the realities of global warming in a digestible way for the general public to understand the science and politics of climate change more readily. What can your research tell us about the effective ways – and the not-so-effective ways – to talk about climate change with people who remain sceptical about it?

P.K.: Our book imagined dialogues between an activist and a sceptic with respect to each of the six questions I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to say whether we succeeded in providing models for constructive conversations between members of these two parties. I’ve received a fair number of enthusiastic emails from readers who thought the book was a must-read for their sceptical friends. In retrospect, though, I’d have written the third chapter differently; the dialogue there didn’t probe deeply enough into the vulnerabilities many opponents of climate action feel. I think the participants should have been people who were actually seeking jobs (rather than people who had just found them), and that the difficulties of economic disruption should have been presented more deeply and more vividly.

 

Q.: In their 2012 book ‘Merchants of Doubt’, science historians Naomi Oreskes (who recently delivered a lecture as part of the PERITIA Lectures Series) and Erik M. Conway ring the alarm on ‘mercenary scientists’ – high-level scientists with strong ties to particular industries – who use their influence to “keep the controversy alive”, actively misleading the public by denying well-established scientific knowledge, including on climate change. How can experts and science communicators help the general public identify these ‘contrarian scientists’ and pinpoint their underlying motivations?

P.K.: As my review in Science indicated, I think Merchants of Doubt is an exceptionally important book – one of the greatest contributions to public understanding of climate change.

I would love to see greater transparency in how the money flows into science labs and into particular projects. I suspect (though I don’t know) that there are all sorts of barriers to getting the information. But, assuming those barriers were broken down, journalists would have a moral responsibility to recognise who is getting funding from Big Oil or Big Pharma, adjust their assessments of controversies accordingly, and let the public know which of the alleged “contrarians” are getting handsomely paid for their efforts. If journalists could find out how the funding flows, and then live up to their responsibilities, the result would be a great legacy of Oreskes’ and Conway’s pioneering work.

 

“I would love to see greater transparency in how the money flows into science labs and into particular projects. I suspect that there are all sorts of barriers to getting the information.”

 

Q.: Many news platforms – and even some science journals – like to talk about “both sides of the global warming debate” to seem more balanced and unbiased, presenting unsubstantiated alternatives as though they are on equal footing with the scientific consensus, which can make it harder for people to distil fact from fiction. At the same time, not mentioning such ‘alternative positions’ may lead some people to feel suspicious and think that certain facts are being hidden from the public. How should we address this paradox?

P.K.: I have been appalled by the tendency of many reputable newspapers to write articles that “balance the conflicting views.” Of course, doing that is just fine when a debate is genuinely unsettled. When a scientific community has reached a consensus, however, it’s either cowardice or a misguided effort to “make science exciting” and so woo, or retain, readers. A whole generation of science journalists seems to fear being sued, sacked or vilified if they take a firm stand. Their editors also appear to want them to emphasise the “personal aspects of the story” – as if readers wouldn’t read an article about science unless it were jazzed up. My guess is that the root of the problem lies with the sense, on the part of journalists and their bosses, that they don’t know enough about science to give their own assessments. That could be remedied if people with a strong background in science were actively recruited, if journalists were offered paid leaves to keep up to date, and so forth.

You are right to hold that people will protest that a newspaper, website, or news channel is “taking sides.” The trouble is that, in our epistemically fractured world, people already believe that about the media they are taught to despise. Getting back to a situation in which media don’t always tell their adherents what they think those people want to hear will be extremely hard.

 

“[Balancing conflicting views] is just fine when a debate is genuinely unsettled. When a scientific community has reached a consensus, however, it’s either cowardice or a misguided effort to ‘make science exciting.’”

 

Q.: What is your position on the argument that individual changes (e.g., reducing meat consumption, flying less, recycling more, etc.) are just as important as – some might argue even more important than – systemic changes (e.g., eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, introducing carbon pricing, etc.) in reducing our carbon footprint on the environment?

P.K.: Completely straightforward. It’s a good idea for individuals to do what they can. But they should realise that individual effort alone is never going to do the trick. Even if decisions by people began to create incentives sufficiently strong to outweigh the bribes producers currently get under the status quo, the process would be far too slow to do much good. Giving up meat is a good idea for at least two other reasons. Installing solar panels is a good idea, too. But without very large systemic changes, probably far more ambitious than anything any climate summit is likely to yield commitments to (let alone live up to), emissions will continue to accumulate at dangerous rates.

 

Q.: Renowned climate scientist Michael Mann has argued in his latest work that outright climate denialism is now fading, and in its place we are seeing what he describes as a new form of ‘soft denialism’, which ultimately has the same goal of slowing actions to curb CO2 emissions. Do you agree? If so, what do you think would be some effective strategies to combat this new form of soft denialism vis-a-vis the more traditionally overt forms of climate change denialism?

Michael Mann is a brilliant climate scientist, an excellent writer for the general public, and a brave man. He’s basically right. I’d just add that there are all sorts of forms of “soft denialism.” Some ex-sceptics say “It’s too late to do anything.” Others say “Why do we take the interest of people who have not yet been born more seriously than those of all the living people who are suffering?”  Others might say “The best we can do for future generations is to keep the economy going.” Others say “This is a collective problem, and requires collective governance – but we’re never going to get that (a good thing too, nobody wants to be run by the UN or faceless bureaucrats in Brussels).” Yet others might say “What we need is geo-engineering. The current forms are either too risky (sulphur in the atmosphere) or only applicable at small scales (carbon capture). Let’s wait until technology discovers the solution.”

I could go on and on about this. We argue that the concerns of the living are important, but that they need to be balanced against our obligations to future generations. It cannot be a matter of ignoring either constituency. Similarly, rich nations, the countries that have created the current mess, have ethical obligations to parts of the world that would otherwise be denied the opportunities for economic development that the mess-makers have long enjoyed. Problems of collective actions have different scales at which all parties must come to agreement – and it is therefore foolish and irresponsible to retreat from joint deliberations, simply out of aversion to transnational entities (or faceless bureaucrats in different places). Finally, to do nothing, and bet on technology finding a way out is an irresponsible gamble on the human future.

 

Credit cover picture: Shutterstock

Towards a New European Research Area — Interview with Kerstin Sahlin

Kerstin Sahlin (Royal Swedish Academy of Science) is the Chair of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area. Picture credit: Umeå University/Mattias Pettersson

Professor Kerstin Sahlin (Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) is Professor of Public Management in the Department of Business Studies at Uppsala University. She is also the Chair of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area, which held its first meeting on 7 October. The group will contribute to the further development of the ERA, its political framework, implementation and monitoring. In this interview, she provides us with an overview on the key issues at stake for the future of ERA.

 

Question: You are the chair of ALLEA’s new working group on the European Research Area. Could you tell us a bit about the objectives of this project?

Kerstin Sahlin: The group will address strategic issues of importance to accomplish the ERA such as free circulation, research inequalities and widening participation, young researchers, academic freedom, and global approaches to R&I. The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The group will also continue to contribute to the monitoring and shaping of EU research and innovation framework programmes.

 

“The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation.”

 

Q.: The European Research Area (ERA) was created in the 2000s as a mechanism to address the fragmentation of the EU’s research and innovation systems. After more than 20 years in development, could you mention one key achievement of this project and one relevant pending issue ahead of us?

K.S.: The European Research Area (ERA) is the ambition to create a single, borderless market for research, innovation and technology across the EU. In 2018, the European Commission initiated a process to revitalise the ERA and in 2020 launched what is called the new ERA. This new ERA seeks to strengthen mobility of researchers and the flow of knowledge, incentivise investing in research and innovation, promote gender equality and diversity in science, and enhance cooperation among universities, business and other research and innovation actors.

 

Q.: After the recent Communication of the European Commission on the future of ERA and the new EU Pact for Research and Innovation, the new ERA is taking off. In your opinion, is the ambition and the framing of priorities of this policy initiative moving towards the right direction?

K.S.: In general, we are very positive to the ambitions of strengthening the European Research Area. The new ERA – and the EU pact for Research and Innovation that was formulated as an agenda for the new ERA – includes a long list of topics. It is still a very open and complex process. The programme of action will include engaging with the European Institutions, particularly the European Commission, on the development of the ERA, its implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

 

“We want to see a new ERA that facilitates cooperation, improves framework conditions for science and research across Europe, facilitates good research practice (…)”

 

Q.: In which areas can European academies work together to contribute the most to the future of the new ERA?

K.S.: We want to see a new ERA that facilitates cooperation, improves framework conditions for science and research across Europe, facilitates good research practice, defends academic freedom and trustworthy science, strengthens diversity and inclusivity, and helps us think and act globally. An ERA, in other words, that forms along the strategic priorities of ALLEA.

 

Members of the new ALLEA Working Group on the European Research Area in their first meeting on 7 October, 2021. The breadth of expertise and geographical representation of the group’s membership reflects the heterogeneity of the ERA itself.

 

Q.: An often-antagonising debate among scientists is the role citizens and policymakers should play in defining their research agendas. How do you think this question should be addressed?

K.S.: I think most researchers welcome an openness to citizens and policymakers. Of course, this should not be set up in such a way that the independence, freedom and trustworthiness of science and research is compromised.

 

Q.: You are Professor of Public Management at Uppsala University.  Could you tell us about your main research interests?

K.S.: I have studied various aspects of organizing and governing public sector organizations. My interest has mainly concerned organizational reforms, the global expansion and circulation of management ideas and developments of global standards and regulations. I am also interested in public – private relations and in the social responsibility of corporations. More recently I have largely focused my research interest on the governing and organizing of higher education and research.

 

Q.: What is the latest project you have been working on?

K.S.: I currently conduct an international comparative study on collegiality in the governance and organizing of higher education and research.

 

Cover Picture Credit: Shutterstock

“A Transition to Climate Sustainability Requires a Change in Culture in Science”

Astrid Eichhorn is chairing the ALLEA Working Group on Climate Sustainability in the Academic System. Credit: Sebastian Neumann/Latest Thinking

 

Climate sustainability in academia is emerging as a pending, urgent task for all research institutions and individuals. How can science reduce its own emissions without compromising excellence and international collaboration? Can the academia travel culture be re-examined and transformed into a more sustainable model?

Astrid Eichhorn is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology (Denmark) and junior researcher at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). Her day-to-day research focuses on quantum gravity and dark matter, but beyond the world of physics and astronomy, she has recently led several initiatives in Germany tackling key questions for reducing the scientific system’s carbon footprint.

As the Speaker of the Die Junge Akademie Board, she is now chairing the ALLEA Working Group on Climate Sustainability in the Academic System, which brings together researchers and stakeholders from across Europe to develop a proposal for a sustainable transformation of academia. In this interview, she addresses some of the fundamental trade-offs for making our scientific systems more sustainable.

 

The climate impact of academia cannot be ignored. We must engage with the topic.

 

Question: Scientists have felt alone in their warnings about the climate crisis and its unprecedented impact on humanity. It is not widely known how science itself has contributed to climate change. Why do you think it is timely to talk about this now?

Astrid Eichhorn: The last reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have made it crystal clear how severe the climate crisis is. Now there is still time to react and introduce swift changes across all sectors of society and that includes science. I see several reasons for science to transition to a climate-sustainable mode of operations.

First, the climate impact of science (which I will use in the broader sense of the word to include social sciences and humanities) may be small compared to the largest global sources of emissions – but that is, I think, not the relevant comparison. The climate impact is not so small when you consider the emissions per researcher. For instance, the greenhouse gas emissions for a single conference trip can be as large as the annual per capita emissions in a developing country (See source).

Second, now the academic community has the opportunity to determine their own path towards net zero and do so in a balanced and deliberated way without harming research quality and international collaboration. If instead we continue with “business as usual”, there may come a moment when policymakers decide to impose strict rules, across-the-board regulations, prohibitions and bans. I think it is better for the academic community to be proactive and to steer and determine the transformation towards climate sustainable academia themselves.

Third, I think there may be a connection to the impact of scientific policy advice and science communication. I have been wondering why during the Covid pandemic scientists are being listened to very carefully in their scientific advice for policy making in so many countries, in contrast to the scientific advice on the climate crisis. One difference between the two is, that scientists themselves were following the scientific advice on Covid: For instance, universities and research institutes went into lockdown alongside other sectors in society. The academic community showed that they are taking both the Covid pandemic and their own advice how to combat it, seriously. Analogously, I think we can make the urgency of the crisis even clearer and increase the impact of scientific policy advice, if we become a sector of society that leads in reducing its climate impact.

 

Q.: You are a physicist working on quantum gravity and its interplay with matter. Why did you become interested in working and researching about climate sustainability in academia?

A. E.: My research questions on the quantum nature of gravity and its interplay with matter are rather far removed from everyday life and from most people’s experiences. However, to me this does not mean that it is legitimate to close my eyes to the real-world impacts of my work, including its climate impact. In my work, conference travel is the main source of emissions. I became very concerned with the climate impact of my own work, when I compared the emissions caused by my intercontinental flights to international conferences and workshops with the “available emissions budget” that were calculated in 1.5-2 ° warming scenarios. These budgets are only about 1-2 t per person per year until 2050. A few years ago, my emissions from conference travel were significantly higher than that.  At that time, I was a junior group leader on a non-permanent position and I heard from many senior researchers, how crucial these conferences are for my academic career (both for the list of invited talks in the CV and for the networking) and so I accepted the invitations – in hindsight, I am second-guessing this decision. As a compromise and provisional solution at that time I instead bought CO2-compensation for all flights that I (and the members of my research team) undertook. However, it was very obvious to me that such individual attempts to reduce the climate impact of science are insufficient and must be accompanied by structural changes. This led me into a project in the German Young Academy (Die Junge Akademie) and later ALLEA.

 

Q.: One of the key questions addressed in the ALLEA Climate Sustainability in Academia project is the assessment of the climate impact of academia. Could you provide some figures or examples of academia’s carbon footprint?

A. E.: The climate impact of science as a whole is actually not very well investigated and documented. Keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions is only now starting to be more common among universities and research institutes and is not yet very widespread. Further – as in other sectors of society – it is challenging to keep track of all emissions, in particular the so-called scope 3 emissions, which include all emissions from purchased goods (e.g., research equipment), food production and transportation (e.g., for university canteens) and travel (e.g., commuting to university as well as conference travel). Many of these are not yet included in universities’ climate reports and many universities only include business travel in their scope 3 emissions. Climate reports from universities therefore typically constitute a low estimate of the full emissions. On average, this results in an estimate of roughly 20000 to 70000 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year for a “typical” European university.

In addition, there is alarming data, e.g., from the Max-Planck-institute for Astronomy in Germany that has recently calculated the emissions of each of their researchers (See source). They found that the work-related emissions per researcher at their institute are 60 % higher than those of the average person in Germany. To me, this per-capita comparison is one example that shows that the climate impact of academia cannot be ignored and that we must engage with the topic.

 

The greenhouse gas emissions for a single conference trip can be as large as the annual per capita emissions in a developing country.

 

Q.: What are some of the most relevant trade-offs to consider when making our scientific systems and practices more sustainable?

A. E.: This is probably the key question to discuss in this context. There are several areas in which careful deliberation is required to bring climate sustainability together with the needs of a well-functioning research community.

One of those areas is physical mobility. Science thrives on global exchange and international collaboration. Conferences can be key places of networking, exchange of ideas and inspiration. Thus, physical mobility cannot simply cease in science, and not all trips can be undertaken without air travel. However, physical mobility can be complemented by, and in many – although of course not all – cases substituted, by virtual mobility. Thus, it is about finding the right balance, and factoring in not just economical, but also ecological costs, when planning trips.

In addition, I think it is also relevant to consider co-benefits that arise from a transition to virtual formats. For instance, those workshops and conferences which are hybrid or fully online, are much more inclusive. In-person meetings often (unintentionally) exclude researchers from the so-called Global South (because of lack of travel budgets and cost and complications of visa applications) and researchers who cannot travel for health reasons or because they have family or care obligations. Thus, making workshop and conference formats more climate sustainable at the same time makes them more (globally) inclusive, which in my view is a huge benefit. As a personal example, at virtual workshops last year I have seen a surge of participation of research groups from countries like Brazil and India, with graduate students who were telling me excitedly that this is the first international workshop they participated in and that they would not have been able to attend, had this been an in-person workshop.

Mobility hence provides one example of how, in thinking about climate sustainable academia, we should remember both the challenges as well as the opportunities.

 

Making workshop and conference formats more climate sustainable at the same time makes them more (globally) inclusive.

 

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Q.: We all have lived through the sudden transition to a digital work life due to the ongoing pandemic. What positive and negative lessons have researchers learnt from the impact of Covid-19 on their working modes?

A. E.: I think that is has been a positive and empowering experience to see, how swiftly the academic community can adapt to sudden disruptions. We managed to continue teaching our students, collaborate internationally and conduct research – not always perfectly, of course, but still! I think this shows how resilient and creative the research community actually is. This makes me very optimistic that the research community has the capacity, creativity and ability to adapt to a climate sustainable mode of operations, and do so swiftly.

A negative lesson to me has been that we do not have robust and high-capacity systems in place to deal with mental health challenges. The added challenges of working life during a pandemic have exacerbated the stress and immense pressure many researchers are under.

First, this affected early-career researchers who often work on short-term contracts and are under huge pressure to be mobile and move, not just countries but even continents, when they change jobs – which has definitely been made more challenging in the insecure situation of the pandemic, with often unclear funding situations and closed borders.

Second, this also affected more senior researchers, on whom an added burden was placed, namely, to act as mentors for students who were struggling with the pandemic and were dealing with associated mental-health challenges. Acting as a mentor is not something that a researcher is typically educated in. The academic system so far has often relied on researchers figuring this task out as they go – with mixed results!

Thus, the pandemic has also served as a reminder of aspects that do not function so well in our current academic system and which should be improved.

 

A negative lesson (of the Covid-19 pandemic) to me has been that we do not have robust and high-capacity systems in place to deal with mental health challenges.

 

Q.: What stakeholders or sectors are you targeting to include in the Climate Sustainability in Academia project’s discussion?

A. E.: Our selection of stakeholders is determined by the conviction that a transition to climate sustainability requires a change in culture in science, because some of our habits and behaviours have to change or adapt. In turn, a change in culture requires two things: First, it requires a change in individual behaviour – for instance, considering the climate impact of various decisions we make. Second, it requires a change in the framework conditions and the system of incentives.

To provide two examples: i) when universities install competence centres with expert staff and state-of-the-art-equipment to support virtual/hybrid meetings, it becomes easier for each individual researcher to consider virtual/hybrid formats as an option; ii) when the number of invited conference talks is not considered as a measure of impact by grant agencies and reviewers, it becomes much easier for (early-career) researchers to accept only invitations to those conferences which they actually find scientifically interesting and worthwhile attending.

To also target such framework conditions, we consider not only students and individual researchers, but also universities and research institutes, conference organizers, funding organizations, academies and learned societies and ranking agencies as important stakeholders.

 

Q.: Taking action to make science more sustainable may imply different costs depending on types of researchers or organisations and considering factors such as resources, career stage or location for instance. How are you tackling the unequal footing of actors within the global scientific system?

A. E.: It is critical to be mindful of unintended consequences that generate inequalities. For instance, senior researchers often insist that early-career researchers should get the same opportunities to network that they had during their careers. To address such points adequately, it is crucial to not just talk about early-career researchers, but also with early-career researchers to allow them to make their voices heard. Thus, in the composition of the working group we paid attention to their being a generational balance, and both senior as well as junior researchers are included.

There is also the important point of global inequalities. In discussing the consequences of a transition to climate-sustainable academia, we have to be mindful that we are starting from a deeply unequal system: For instance, resources that researchers in the so-called Global South have access to, are typically much than in the so-called Global North. Thus, in discussing how to adapt the travel culture in academia, it is key to think about ways that decrease, instead of increasing, such inequalities.

 

Q: You are also the Speaker of Die Junge Akademie. Could you give us an example of any of your projects addressing climate sustainability in academia?

A. E.: Die Junge Akademie has first considered its own climate impact in 2019, when we released a statement demanding that CO2-offsets for work-related trips can be covered by public bodies, such as universities or indeed academies. We combined this demand with a voluntary commitment to avoid, if possible, air travel for trips related to our work in the young academy. However, to us this was only a very small first step to engage with the broader issue of climate sustainability in academia. We continued to focus on air travel with a set of recommendations to reduce the amount of travel and substitute physical with virtual mobility. It goes without saying that the team that wrote the recommendations did so without physical meetings – similarly, all meetings of the ALLEA working group to date have been virtual meetings.

With Die Junge Akademie’s inauguration into ALLEA, it was a natural next step to bring together a diverse set of experts from various European countries to engage with climate sustainability in academia in all its various aspects – including, but also going beyond the questions of air travel and physical vs virtual mobility.

 

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