12 March 2013, Geneva, Switzerland - Imagining an open dialogue on the challenges of communicating science and technology to the world, convened by the largest physics laboratory in the world together with the largest international organization would have been odd only a few years ago. Yet all the seats were taken at the round table organized by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) on the CERN premises on 12 March and many more people were watching live via webcast and putting questions to the speakers via e-mail and twitter. The panel of speakers included experts and scientists from CERN, ITU, the Human Brain Project, the European Space Agency, UNITAR, and a scientific journalist from the Swiss national TV.
“This is a clear sign of the higher value of scientific knowledge in the international decision-making landscape. It signals the beginning of a new phase in the relation between science and society” says Francesco Pisano, Director of Research, Technology Applications and Knowledge Systems at UNITAR. Other experts converged on this point although the discussion highlighted also the difficulty of communicating science to an international audience more used to policy and humanities than particle physics. Paul Conneally of International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was adamant that the key is to find the best way to communicate to non-expert audiences. Other speakers underlined the importance of transparency and attracting the public’s attention apart from the topical moments when large scientific discoveries are widely celebrated by the media.
CERN and the European Space Agency are good examples of both doing science daily, away from the spotlight, and becoming the centre of world’s attention when there is a sensational break-through. Many scientists say the public finds it hard to comprehend the excitement of normal operations, what they call “doing science”, as opposed to the revelatory moment of discovery. James Gillies, Head of communications at CERN, gave examples of the reasons and effects of the Laboratory’s instant planetary popularity when the Large Hadron Collider began operations, and even more so on the day the Higgs particle was first observed. This popularity is magnified by social media and the world wide web, another great advancement brought to humankind by CERN, he observed. Fernando Doblas of European Space Agency (ESA) offered examples in the same vein and told of the Agency’s experience in communicating with political decision makers and parliamentarians who need to understand the value of science to be able to legislate and provide funding.
Still the question remains how to make the general public aware that apart from great discovery moments, fundamental research and technology experimentation do have concrete impact on our quality of life and eventually on higher values such as peace, human rights, and equality. The history of humankind is the history of our struggle to understand the world around us and create tools, machines and automated processes capable of improving our life. Science is at the roots of this constant quest, yet scientists, society and politics are worlds much less connected than one would expect looking at our degree of development. And “there seems to be more science going on than scientific journalists to report on it”, said Christophe Ungar of Swiss TV TRS.
Photo: Speakers at the round-table (credit: UNITAR/N Morelli)