Thinking, working and speaking without prejudice

P1030948Contribution for the Workshop ‘Mediating between Science and Society’; on the International Conference about Images of Science, 7 December 2004, Amsterdam, by Dr. Ad Lansink, former Member of Dutch Parliament

Looking into history, there has always been a distance between science and society. Sometimes and in some fields, the distance was short. But usually, the source of knowledge is not easy accessible to the general public. The ivory tower of natural science is a fact of life. The need for a two-way mediation between science and society requires players, who know the large and unequal playing field of science and society. The question whether politicians can build a bridge between science and society is a very difficult one.

Personal introduction First a short personal introduction. During my career I held only two positions: first as scientist and later as politician. From 1952 till 1959 I studied chemistry at Utrecht University with known teachers: Overbeek (physical chemistry), Bijvoet (irreversible thermodynamics) and finally Dijksterhuis (history of natural science): however, a dissertation in this field of science was not possible: in the opinion of the famous winner of the PC Hooft-prize I was not good enough. So I went to the Catholic University Nijmegen, where I took a PhD in physical biochemistry (Prof. Dr. G. van Os) in 1964. Afterwards I became biochemist at the Department of Pathology, UMC Radboud till 1977. During the discussion on the reform of Dutch universities (1969-1970) I became interested in politics, first in the local, afterwards in the national field. From 1970 till 1982 I was member of Nijmegen Town Council. In 1977 I became member of Second Chamber. During 21 years I remained a Duch MP. My debate on the merger of science and politics concerned the recombinant DNA technology (1978). Because of my rational approach some MP’s told me during the first years: ‘You are too scientific. You do not have an antenna for the needs and demands of the general public’.

P1030949Introduction of the problem Do we have to reduce the distance between science and society, or must we build bridges? In the first case there remains a chance on a blockade, in the second case exchange of thoughts easily develops in two directions. Therefore, I plead more for bridging over than for reducing the distance. In other words: popularizing is fine, but does not solve the problem. The world of science as a source of knowledge is not accessible to society. So: do we have to reduce the distance between science and society? Or must we build bridges for a two-way-mediation? Furthermore: scientists are not sufficiently aware of elsification questions and other problems such as translation and transfer of knowledge, and listening to needs and demands. Especially, the elsification phenomenon (José van Dijck, Imagination (1998, 141): elsification is the ‘tendency to add ethical, legal and social aspects to scientific and technological research) points towards the importance of fair translation of knowledge, but also to the weighing of social and ethical arguments

Mediators build bridges Otherwise: the process of building bridges to overcome the gap between science and society demands different things, both from science and society, or from scientists and citizens. From science we ask

  • Explanation of scientific objects and means
  • Thorough diffusion of positive and negative results
  • Responsible answers on old and new questions

From society we demand

  • Willingness to invest in education
  • Sound curiosity for science and technology
  • Critical but responsible behavior

Science and learning have to leave their isolated position. Society must show the willingness to learn new things, and to ask critical questions. Which players are available in the mediation field? Of course and on the first place I mention scientists themselves. They know the world of science, and are at the same time citizens. So scientists actually are my first choice. However, they are not always available or even able to mediate between science and the general public. Therefore, at present professional mediators play an important role in mediation. Practically: they are very acceptable, especially if well trained scientific journalists are available (New Scientist, Scientific American, but also new media e.q. Discovery). In society I distinguish politicians and interested citizens. Are they able to build bridges? My answer is: Politicians: no, unless present-day behavior changes in long term policy without any prejudice, and with less pragmatism than nowadays seen. I come back on this point in the next paragraph.  Citizens: yes, provided the combination of scientific and professional skills. I point e.g. towards the medical expertise of patient organizations and the work of large NGO’s. Good mediators have to fulfill several requirements. In my opinion: the following qualities are necessary:

  • Scientific and technological involvement
  • Insight into various research mechanisms
  • Understanding of technical matters
  • Fair transfer of scientific results
  • Thinking and working without prejudice
  • Speaking the language of general public
  • Open mind for questions from society

P1030950Politics and politicians Can politicians play a role in bridging the distance between science and society? At first sight the answer seems positive. Politicians know the people that they represent. However, they should know some scientific skills. Moreover,  politicians have to examine scientific and technological results, not only because they pursue long-term aims, but also because they look for means to attain that aims. Science and technology can be helpful by handing the instruments to reach the aims.  On second thoughts, I am inclined to the opinion, that current politics is not able to represent the role of mediator. I accentuate the term current politics, because especially in the last years I see developments such as

  • Incidental instead of structural approach
  • Emotional above rational arguments
  • More pragmatism, less ideology
  • Insufficient attention for long term policy
  • Outbalance of social and security problems
  • Large dependence on publicity

A preliminary conclusion: short term political wishes score higher than long term ideological aims. This leads to the consequence that a large number of long term cases are difficult to convince the public opinion, also politicians. When politics puts easily aside all or at least some findings of science and technology, how could the same politics be mediator between science and society.

Interesting examples Now, let me give you some examples from my own political career to show the tension between scientific possibilities and the resistance of politics against new technologies. I start with the nuclear energy debate:

  • Nuclear energy: with good knowledge of reactor safety, regarding to risk analysis; broad experience, in different parts of the world; and support of international safeguards (IAEA, Wenen)
  • Radioactive Waste: with safe prolonged storage (COVRA, Vlissingen); investigations on permanent removal in several countries; and active research on changing into actinides.

Though scientifically as technologically is certain, that the development and application of nuclear energy can take place on a safe manner and also contributes to the solution of the climate problem, many politicians have the irreversible view that the use of nuclear energy is not in the public interest. In relation with this permanent discussion, they argue, that there is no solution for the storage of radioactive deposit. Though those deposits fulfill strong regulations, and safe control has been guaranteed, politicians keep their fixed opinion, that underground or over ground deposits are not an acceptable solution. Also, the argument, that an accessible system has the opportunity of conversion in less radioactive isotopes does not convince politicians.

Transplantation of organs I mention another example from medical technology. Though scientifically it is obvious, that transplantation of human organs belongs to the acquirements of modern medical technology, many politicians offers resistance to such legislation, that transplantation expand their possibilities. In this case there is no restricted scientific knowledge. However, the dominant influence of a political or social ideology, which places the individual above the society, hampers a conceptual change of legislation. Also in this case mediation is a very difficult task by the diverging social opinions. We have good knowledge and broad experience of transplantation technology. There is a large need for human organs, and the question of European or national approach has been answered (Europtransplant). Nevertheless, there is not enough public and political support for reform of legislation due to ideological and also political reasons, lack of public knowledge in spite of the actions of patient organizations and the relation to the elsification processes

Climate change policy Also the famous greenhouse effect, the climate change policy and the measures against the emission of greenhouse gasses is hampered by a lack of unanimity, both in the scientific and political field. In keywords:

  • Evidence from scientific community: however: also several scientific opponents
  • Large international, political support (Kyoto), however: conflict of interests of large countries (Russia, USA) because of  social and economical consequences
  • So: little public support. Furthermore: obstruction of effective measures And till up now: no visible results

In spite of excellent scientific congresses and meetings with a broad consensus between science and politics on the necessity of CO2-reduction, some scientists hold on to their opinion, that the influence of CO2 on the climate is not so big. Result: Politicians, who find it difficult to take the right measures, fall back into scientists, who play down the climate change policy problems.

Positive examples from environmental policy Actually I can mention you some examples of successful mediation. Nature, date and also the temporary action of these positive examples shows obviously, that a permanent function of politics remains a difficult task. The examples

  • The acid rain story: During the eighties society, press and politics got excited about the phenomenon of acid rain. Observation of dying woods gave broad support to efficient measures against the emission of several dangerous gasses such as SO2 and NOX. As more causes became clear, the support diminished, also by the fact, that the acid rain problem appeared to be reversible.
  • Other pollution effects: During the seventies and eighties the results of scientific investigation pointed to the dangerous effects of NOx from traffic. Especially, the higher occurrence of cancer prompted to measures such as the introduction of the katalysatos in cars. By the way, The reduction of emissions, e.g. fine dust  remains an important issue.
  • Waste management:  Finally, the personal example of waste management on such a way, that waste after recycling becomes a secondary raw material. Perhaps the so called Ladder of Lansink (prevention, is a good example of the bridge between science and society.

P1030951Conclusion and recommendations On a whole, the possibilities of politics in mediation are limited, though not impossible. Nowadays, the mediating role is very difficult – especially in the Netherlands – because of the current state of the political debate. Politicians can only come into the function of mediator if long term visions dominate incidental approach. Thinking, working and speaking without prejudice, that would be my recommendation for politicians of today and tomorrow. I conclude therefore with 4 recommendations, presented in the last slide.



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