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Science and society: a new partnership for new challenges

  • Venice
  • 7 October 2023

        The group focused on understanding the role of science in society, in particular following the Covid-19 crisis, that has put science front and center in decision-making. In this context, we have moved from the pandemic to a pandemonium. This aspect has deep consequences for how science and scientists are being perceived. Despite the essential role that science had in getting us out of the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented backlash, with attacks on scientists and general mistrust in science. 

        This is just not just a sensation: to quote data from the Pew Research Trust, from 2020 to 2022, confidence in medical scientists has decreased from 40% to 29%. Confidence in science – in general, not just medical – has decreased from 39% to 22%. It is crucial that we tackle this issue, examining the reasons why science and society seem to be at odds with one another.

        Analysis during the seminar discussions identified three major drivers.

        • The first is rooted in the consequences of globalization. Large swaths of society have been excluded from global development. This had led people to have a lack of trust in elites – be they real or perceived. People are upset and this leads to protest. This also lies at the root of the anti-vaccine movement, where many protesters are just expressing frustration and discontent.
        • The second is a communications crisis. Social media in particular has generated a system in which everyone shouts at each other, where everyone talks and no one listens.
        • The third element is a lack of strong political leadership. Situations have arisen in which politicians have taken all the benefits of scientific research (such as the astonishing speed with which the Covid vaccine was developed), and yet simultaneously discredited those very scientists that provided the results. 

        The fragmentation of science and scientific processes has caused confusion for the media, who then amplify that confusion for the general public. The scientific community should be more careful not only in their planning and research, not only in discovering and implementing solutions, but also in how their work is communicated and in how best to involve society. For example, scientific experiments must be able to be repeated by multiple scientists to verify results, and the scientific community’s responsibility in this sense is absolutely fundamental. 

        Participants at the seminar were very concerned by the global rise of nationalism and protectionism that is bound to hinder the application of scientific discoveries for the benefit of humans. The nationalistic tendencies that emerged regarding the Covid vaccine, for example, was appalling. There were countries that insisted on vaccinating their populations with their own homegrown vaccine, even if it was clearly inferior; that is not the way science should work.

        For the dividends of scientific research to benefit everyone, a full engagement of citizens at all levels is an essential and central element in all processes. In addition to debate among scientists, institutions and industry, we need to transition from a one-way flow of information to a permanent, two-way dialogue between science and society at large. To achieve this goal, an alliance between science and social media is needed. Furthermore, greater education and coherent and simple scientific messages can give citizens the right tools to identify falsehoods and misinformation.

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