Carl Sagan explaining why it is vital for democracy that science and technology is understood by the electorate, and by its representatives. The brilliant science and science communicator understood the danger of a society based on science and technology in which there was a lack of understanding of scientific and technological principles and ideas. In such a society decisions about science and technology will be taken in non-transparent ways by powerful lobbies. Worse still, ignorance of science will also mean that decisions about important issues will be wrong. Sagan was very prophetic. Today issues like climate change, genetic engineering, Artificial Intelligence, energy, drug discovery, advanced weapons, space exploration, to name but a few, are treated by an ignorant press and a mostly ignorant political class as an opportunity to gain political points or better ratings. Science communicators are fighting against the tide of history.
The worrying disconnection between the scientific community and society at large has been well documented. The last two decades saw much of the fall-out: promising technologies such as stem cells and GMOs were attacked by mass media and had to go on the defense. Major research infrastructures had to fight in order to obtain political support and many projects in big and small science had to be abandoned because of lack of funding. If one considers that public spending in scientific research is on average less than 2% of GDP in OECD countries, it is worrying that politicians who want to cut deficits see science budgets as a legitimate target. Why is that?
When I was working as External Relations Officer for the European Bioinformatics Institute I was often challenged by Members of the European Parliament that scientific goals “did not capture the imagination as they used to do”. “Give us something like the trip to the Moon”, said one MEP to me when I tried to explain the benefits of a pan-European research infrastructure for bioinformatics.
In democratic countries politicians are in the business of persuading their constituents of their political choices. When constituents, in classifying societal needs, place science in a low position, even scientifically-minded ministers and parliamentarians will find it hard to argue for it. Pushing a scientific agenda must therefore take into consideration the following:
- Perception of science in the public
- Position of media with regards to science
- Channels and method of communication to engage the public
Survey data from sources, such as Eurobarometer, show a mixed picture with regards to the public’s perception of science and scientists. In my opinion, the most significant message is this: in the EU citizens trust science and scientists but feel that science is moving too fast and that they have no time to digest it. Conclusion: Scientists ought to do more in order to engage citizens. Public engagement must become a requirement for working scientists.
The media are, generally speaking, neutral to science. What interests them are stories that will attract the attention of audiences. This is often going amiss with the majority of science communicators, or with scientists who earnestly try their best in talking about their work. Alas, being excited about your project does not make an interesting story. To get the media’s attention science must be framed as an interesting story; narrative is key to explaining and engaging. Scientists and science communicators must learn from literature, novels, plays or essays. And they must be proactive. For example, if you are a researcher working in creating artificial life don’t wait till the x tabloid attacks your research as “unholy” or “demonic” or “whatever” – work with an experienced science journalist or writer to put together a story that will explain artificial life in terms of what people are familiar with – and engage.
Stories and narratives will provide the content for bridging the gap between scientists and the media. But they are not enough. We have a problem here of two distinct communication networks with very little connectivity between them. Scientific communication networks are very well developed, and so are the media. But there is little connection between them. This connection must be forged and fostered. Science journalists and science writers in general media are the natural nodes to build this global intra-network between science and media.
Finally, and most importantly, scientists must realize that our democracies devolve more and more, which means that citizens will have increasing powers in decision-making. This political devolution manifests in parliaments consulting citizen groups about legislation, in NGOs pushing agendas through the legislative process, etc. Leaving the job of informing citizens about science to the media is not enough. Science communication must change and become more like political communication: not only telling constituents what is good for them (e.g. one more telescope) but listening to what they have to say too.
Science and science funding undergo fundamental changes and scientists must learn to adapt.
Developing countries are faced with a host of problems but also with an abundance of opportunities for economic development. As democracy sweeps across many of them, these opportunities become evermore realizable. What has changed? The answer is simple: democracies are best at maximizing the “ultimate resource” that country has, namely its people.
People and their “mind power” is what can drive developing countries out of social injustice and poverty and into sustainable and equitable development. Creativity and innovation are the keywords that can shape their future. Science and technology are at the core of such aspirations.
But what kind of science? And what kind of technology? Surely, developing countries do not possess the same means that developed countries have. They lack research infrastructures, world-class universities, high-tech industries and, above all, generous funding for science. Is it then possible that a developing country can seriously contemplate using science and technology as the powerhouse for its economic development?
The answer is surely “yes”. The key to success is to design and implement the appropriate science policy for the specific country.
Feline Quanta have developed a methodology that is specifically suited for developing countries that share the vision of science and technology as instrumental for their future. Our methodology comprises five main areas: Strategic planning & management, training, capacity building, networks and public engagement.
Here is a brief summary of these four areas of work.
1. Strategic planning and management
Set specific goals taking into account the cultural and societal context. Goals should be geared towards (a) solving specific technical problems to the country; (b) getting knowledge-transfer and know-how from developed economies. In the former, the country can develop unique technical expertise. The latter, realized by means of investment incentives, is crucial to developing working standards and methods that will feed in the economic development process.
Determine metrics for evaluating and managing the implementation of the strategy. Science policy takes time to be implemented and it is imperative that the government commits long term resources and people to that end.
Scientists, engineers and policy-makers must be trained in order to enable effective communication between them. Programs are unlikely to succeed if government officials and other decision-makers are not made aware of the importance of science. Science must inform policy at all levels, and scientists and engineers must be consulted before new legislation is passed. An effective working relationship such as this will be instrumental in policy-makers and legislators supporting science policy. Particular emphasis should be given to patent and business training, with relative support at national level for scientists and engineers who invent something new.
3. Capacity building
This is a fundamental step towards building a science and technology backbone for the country. Based on the defined goals managers should identify existing core competencies and invest in them. Further investment must go towards building from scratch research centres with specific scientific goals that complement existing core competencies. Particular emphasis must be given to university education. Incentives should be put in place that will entice expatriates or non-nationals scientists to consider moving in the country and setting up their labs there (“brain gain”).
Science is an international and collaborative process. Networks should be built, joined in and strengthened at local, regional and international level. Research teams should be encouraged and helped to join international research consortia and utilize international research funds. Involve the productive as well as the academic sectors in the development of a nation’s science programs. Linking businesses and research centers is imperative in successful science policies. Businesses can make innovative contributions to scientific goals along with those from the educational sector. For example, The National Council for Science and Technology of Mexico (CONACYT) has realized that science cannot be the exclusive province of academicians; its 2008 report, echoing the advice of UNESCO, states: “Private sector participation in funding of research is very low in most developing countries. There is a need to develop incentives to encourage private sector participation in research and involve the private sector.”
5. Engage society
The role of citizens and society is vital is the success of science policy. Citizens, NGOs, associations, groups, etc., must be constantly engaged in the implementation and indeed become a partner. Public engagement is two-prong. Its first goal is to cultivate and increase awareness of science and technology as means to solving real world problems. Its second, and equally important, goal is to enter into a productive dialogue with society about scientific aspirations and targets. This second goal is important to forge a mutually trusted partnership between scientists and policy-makers, and society. This partnership will not only support implementation but it will guide more effectively the science governance process.
Greece is a developed country, and a member of the European Union and of the Eurozone. Since 2010 it has been insolvent and has virtually defaulted under a massive public debt. As the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank provide lifeline loans to Greece, the country tailspins into one of the gravest recession in its modern history. The “traditional” business model of the country has failed and new paths must be opened if Greece hopes for a future.
Regrettably, most voices for development focus on agriculture and tourism. Although both these sectors are obvious choices for investment they can never be productive enough to support a developed country with sky-high costs in defense spending, as well as in social and health services.
Greece must be re-invented and turned it to a dynamic, high-tech, export-oriented economy. Anything short of wholesale economic revolution will perpetuate the looming crisis into the following decades, exclude the young from the abounding opportunities of a globalized economy, further cultivate national tendencies for introversion, and render the country and its people historically irrelevant.
Much needs to change.Greece’s state schools serve not the interests of the pupils but of the heavily unionized teachers. They produce hordes of ignoramuses destined for a life of unemployment or underemployment. As a result, if you are a bright young mind from a low or middle income family you have very little chance of climbing up the social ladder, a right that was not refused to older generations of Greeks.
The country’s Universities are a disaster, with a few shining exceptions in various departments here and there. Research centers struggle to pay salaries and bills. Many of their stymied young scientists have left careers abroad to come to Greece, only to discover that the cleaners get paid more than they. The country’s brain power is frustrated, underemployed or unemployed, watching from the sidelines. If any of them dare to venture into commercially exploiting their ideas they will come up against the hydra of Greek bureaucracy, the labyrinth of its tax system and the medusa of its labor laws. Only heroes in the mythical sense could grapple with monsters such as these, and defeat them.
So the question is: given the current situation what could be done in order for Greece to become a high-tech export country? A country that not only will learn to exploit its knowledge capital, but also will compete for markets with players such as the Americans, the northern Europeans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Koreans, the Chinese, and a host of others who shape the future of our world?
The first step will be to raise the importance of the issue in government.Greece needs a minister for science, technology and innovation to carry out the reforms. S/he must have a clear and sustained mandate from the Prime Minister. S/he will have the responsibility of drafting legislation that will cover all the other four areas to be discussed. The current ministry of education will have to be absorbed in the new ministry, and focus on executing the reforms in schools and universities. The general-secretariat for research and technology will have to be integrated also in the new ministry and focus on linking research to industry.
School reform will be one of the four areas that the new ministry should lead. State schools need to be redesigned and teachers made to teach. Parents should be given the right to choose the school for their children, based on school evaluation by an independent agency. Schools should have independent governance and the freedom to become competitive by selecting personnel, expand their curriculum, etc. Their state income will be tagged to their evaluation reports, but they may also attract additional income from charities, local government or industry. Science and technology should be given prominence in the curriculum. Teachers should work with students around science projects and not only courseware. They should go out of the classroom more often and observe nature. Connect science and engineering to reality, to real problems, and enthuse young minds with the exhilaration that comes from discovery. The best performing students must be given a chance for quicker progress. Special schools of excellence for the brightest kids should return to existence. These kids should be taken through a more rigorous curriculum that would satisfy their curiosity and abilities. Gifted kids from the countryside should be helped to study in these schools, their boarding paid by special grants, or negative income tax on their parents’ earnings.
Secondly, a new framework must be devised that will exploit the country’s knowledge capital, starting from the universities. Many analysts argue that the decadence and corruption that prevails in Greek Universities are too deeply ingrained to simply go away with half measures. Perhaps then it is time that Universities ceased to be funded from the national budget. The Ministry of Science should identify centers of excellence in research, fund these generously and build new, leaner, State Universities around them. Let the rest of the departments survive of perish, based on their own. Such a radical plan will force universities to re-invent themselves from public to private institutions. Allow private universities immediately, in order to absorb the unemployed professors, but also to create a competitive environment for higher education.
Education can be both a citizen right and a market commodity; and we can have the best of both worlds. Students who pass university exams should be given a state grant for four years depending on their family’s income – and the right to spend it to the university of their choice, private or public. Rich kids will get no grant, but will be able to get a student loan. Private and State Universities of high quality will attract students and their grants or loans, and thus survive and flourish. The rest can happily perish. Evaluation of Universities, state and private, will be carried out by an independent agency in order to inform students and their families.
But University reform, however radical and revolutionary, will not deliver any substantial results if not linked to the real economy. There are many who think that there is no real industry in Greece. This is not true. There is and efforts should focus on what Greece has, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials and software. For the next ten years research centers in the newly reinvented state Universities and research institutions should act primarily as R&D departments for the core industries. Researchers will be paid by the government but work in their labs to increase the international competitiveness of the private enterprises. Contracts will guarantee that profits from patents developed in the labs will be shared with the researchers. If the government, or private entrepreneurs, can bring in investment from abroad in other industries, then surely this framework will prove to be a major incentive for foreign investors.Greece cannot fund every research area there is, so she must focus on supporting her industries and create new jobs. Blue-sky research and basic research should be funded by European grants or by exploiting Greece’s membership to international scientific organizations such as ESA, CERN and EMBL.
Thirdly, a legal and administrative system must be designed and applied in order to finance new high tech industries. This system should give incentives to banks, corporations and angel investors, to invest on high-risk ideas. Labor and tax laws must be simplified. High tech start ups must be given tax breaks for the first three years of their operation, and be able to tap in the R&D resources available at the research centers and the Universities.
Fourthly, there must be support for the high tech industries. The government must build partnerships with industries which will actively promote our products and services abroad, attract investment and scientific talent, and reinforce Greek presence to strategic markets.Greece must be rebranded. Greeks must reintroduce themselves to the world as a reinvented country where bright minds and novel ideas are valued and supported.
Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult task of all, a new scientific culture must be fostered in the country. Promote scientists and engineers, and encourage kids to choose science, engineering and maths as their favorite subjects. Professional organizations in science and technology must come out of the shells and reach out to society. The outreach program of the Hellenic Society of Physicists is an example which has to emulated and advanced by chemists, mathematicians and engineers.
Big Society must support the work of a truly reformist government, and that includes the major charity foundations of Greece which in the past decades seem to be obsessed with funding opera houses, art museums and music halls that appeal to the few and the mostly old. It is of course fantastic to have these buildings but what Greece needs most urgently now is to catch up with the rest of the world and not to be left behind.Greece, and wealthy Greeks, need to invest in new ideas, in bright people, in innovative start-ups, and in high technology.