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Science and people. Understanding and supporting research and its applications

Roma, 28/05/2019, Cross-generation roundtable

There has been a waning over recent years in society’s trust in and understanding of scientific progress and its pervasive benefits. How can science and public opinion be reconciled when the two appear to exist on parallel planes, divided by the critical confrontation being fomented by the social networks? A polarization of positions that is influencing the perceptions of communities and of policies that include with scientific and/or technical aspects. This is clear in the many ongoing disputes in both Italy and the world in general over topics such as climate change and energy production, vaccines, agriculture and the healthiness of food.

Policy decisions end up trapped between or paralyzed by divergent demands: on the one side, positions that reflect the results produced by research and, on the other, the skepticism of expanding groups of citizens. It is possible that this diffidence toward science is owed to a certain arrogance on the part of scientists who present science as absolute knowledge even when it is actually nothing of the sort. At times, that arrogance consists not of providing the public with proof they do not have, but of demanding consensus based on blind confidence in the experts[1].

How then to foster a better understanding of scientific progress in the public, and therefore policy makers, thereby avoiding the costs associated with decisions either not made or mistaken?

First of all, it is necessary to encourage awareness by clearly describing the goals that can be achieved through scientific research, with a view to generating trust and a climate favorable to investments. This is the purpose of the U.S. Aspen Institute’s Science and Society Program[2], a joint approach to a transatlantic challenge.

This mistrust of scientific progress is also being fueled by the perception that the digital revolution is taking jobs away. It is therefore considered important to boost STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) skills among young people, but also among adults, who could be more severely impacted by the “skill gap”. The separation between Humanities and Science studies needs to be eliminated. Science must be considered a resource by which to create jobs and facilitate the transition to new activities, new professions and new trades (witness the economic boom triggered by the Industrial Revolution in England).

The experiences of some countries, such as Germany and China, show the critical importance of a university system that – with sufficient government funding, first of all – is capable of providing an adequate level of basic research capable of further development in both public and private sectors at the level of the applied sciences. Basic research is also cited as fundamental precisely because of its ability to generate new knowledge and economic value in unpredictable ways. Technological transfer needs to be reinforced, since research can lead to patents that, in turn, can generate substantial profits that eventually, and ideally, could be directed towards funding new research.

This would make it possible to incentivize the return of those young Italian researchers that have emigrated abroad, as well as attract foreign researchers to Italy, lower the average age of researchers and upgrade research facilities and the skills they produce.



[1] Giorgio Parisi, “Relazione del Presidente dell’Accademia dei Lincei alla Inaugurazione dell’anno accademico 2018-19”, Adunanza pubblica a Classi Riunite, Venerdì 9 novembre 2018.