In 2019, ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, celebrated its 25th anniversary during its annual General Assembly, hosted by the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. As in all jubilees, there was room for pride and celebration, but also for appraisal and critique; we looked at past achievements with the eyes of the present, in order to prepare a better future.
The last quarter century has been a period of tremendous change in the field of science, which has affected both disciplinary discourses and patterns of institutional governance: on the one hand, research topics such as energy, health or data science have become transdisciplinary and acquired the status of ‘global challenges.’ On the other hand, European scientific institutions have become motors of excellence and innovation with a high impact on the transformation of European societies in our digital age.
Yet, public confidence in the guiding role of science in shaping our future seems to be increasingly called into question. Does European science blossom, while European societies ache? Political discourse is frequently driven by algorithms of acceptance rather than by scientific or scholarly expertise. Our common cultural values, rooted in the curiosity and tolerance of the Enlightenment, are increasingly challenged. Different perceptions and narratives of Europe threaten to divide our societies, leaving a vacuum of haunting uncertainty about the future.
What role can European academies play to provide a bridge between production and diffusion of knowledge for the benefit of society? How can they contribute their share to the anchoring of the underlying values of the Enlightenment upon which scientific progress is based?
To address these questions, the yearly ALLEA scientific symposium was divided in the following four sessions:
Session 1: Science Policy
Science and Society in Present-day Europe
Science is an integral component of our modern society, and often enough it is the scientists’ research which brings about wide-spread social and technological changes, sometimes with unforeseen side-effects.
The ever-faster digitalisation of nearly all aspects of modern life accelerates these changes and has a profound influence on the interaction between science and society. The near immediacy of modern communications channels coupled with a context collapse in the digital environment is presenting scientists with previously unknown challenges. It is high time to adapt the way we do science to still serve our changing societies.
This session explored the nuanced interplay between science, society and politics, how science is understood by the many and why we might need to rethink disciplinary silos in science.
Session 2: Early Career Researchers’ Perspective
Re-Enlightenment? Truth, reason and science in a global world
At a time of perceived erosion of trust in science, the Global Young Academy discussed the values of the Enlightenment in today’s society, in digital transformation, and in a so-called post-truth world. Panellists analysed the potential for a (Re-)Enlightenment from three different perspectives: how can we embrace the universality of science while valuing local and cultural differences? In a society that is moving away from Enlightened values yet still relies on scientists to solve the grand challenges of our time, how should scientists interpret their role in this environment? And finally, what are the limits of a (Re-)Enlightenment?
Session 3: Science in Society
Remember the Moon Landing 1969! Big Scientific Events and their Role in Society
The moon landing in 1969 was one of the most important events in the history of science and mankind. In 2019, the year of its 50th anniversary, we discussed the role of such scientific breakthroughs: How do people remember the moon landing? Which were similarly memorable scientific events that followed? Which will be the next big discoveries of such importance? How should these events be presented to the media and to society? In this interactive session, the relation between public, science, society and media was put into perspective, allowing a discourse starting with our own experiences.
Session 4: Science Advice
Tackling Microplastics Pollution? – The Role of Science Advice, an Example from SAPEA
Public and media concern about microplastic particles in the environment has risen over the last few years. But the science behind the debate is particularly complex, with many socio-economic implications, as well as gaps in the evidence, making risks hard to assess. What role should this evidence play in an increasingly polarised policy debate? This session explored the close interaction and mutual influence between science, society and policymakers using the example of the emerging nano- and microplastics debate, which had recently been tackled by SAPEA in an Evidence Review Report for the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisors. As a topic resonating strongly with many different parts of society, nano- and microplastics were a pertinent topic to illustrate how scientific topics are discussed in the public and their effects on policymaking.