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European Commissioner for Science and
Communicating European Research 2005
Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Second Annual Conference on Communicating European Research. I would like to start by thanking Philippe Busquin, my predecessor as Commissioner, for acting as Master of Ceremonies today.
It is a rare occasion to share the stage with a distinguished humanoid robot which has travelled all the way back to Europe to discover its roots. Hello ASIMO! (ASIMO greets). A European team of researchers from the University of Heidelberg, which is here today with us, was responsible for developing ASIMO’s ”voice”. Hundreds of students across Europe have seen ASIMO in action and I think this means seeing science in a new and different way.
Today, and for the coming days, we are here to explore how and why science needs to reach out and touch a wider audience. How communication is a need and a must for science.
It is quite an achievement to bring together close to 3.000 scientists, journalists and policy makers under the same roof, all of whom face the same challenge.
This challenge is twofold: on the one hand we need to improve the ways in which we communicate research and on the other hand, we need to improve the image of science in society.
Let me try to put this in another way: It is clear that research alone cannot solve the many challenges that our society faces today. But it is also clear to me that in order to tackle these challenges, research is very much part of the equation.
Hence one of the main mottos of this conference “No solution without Research”.
Research has the potential to address and answer society’s pressing needs and concerns. Research harbours answers to many of the questions posed everyday by our citizens. But we need to think of how we communicate this and how we identify the key messages that stem from it.
We have to rethink our strategy when faced with today’s challenges. On the one hand, we stay committed to the Lisbon objectives and the ever growing requirements of a knowledge society. On the other hand, we need to confront the increasing indifference of young people to science, and indeed to the whole European project, and the growing gap between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not.
Therefore, communicating research and engaging with the public is more than a priority. It’s an obligation. Not only because research and science constitute one of society’s driving forces to achieve progress, but even more so, because research has a daily impact on all European citizens as a result of the choices we make and the policies we design.
According to the latest Eurobarometer carried out earlier this year, scientists in universities are the most appreciated amongst the different actors involved in science and research. 88% of EU citizens think that scientists have a positive impact on society.
Having said that, European Union citizens in their overwhelming majority believe that scientists put too little effort into informing the public about their work.
This European Commission has recognised better communication as a policy on its own merits and has earmarked it as one of its principal objectives.
An “Action Plan to Improve Communicating Europe’’ was launched under the guidance of Commissioner Wallström earlier this year. This Action Plan is based on three principles. First, listening to EU citizens and taking their views into account. Second, communicating how EU policies affect citizens’ everyday life and what added value they bring. And third, connecting to audiences by conveying the key messages to them through the most suitable channels.
Researchers are an excellent example of the added value of working together over the country borders, and research and knowledge is Europe’s unique selling point in the face of globalisation.
I strongly believe that European research must serve as a vehicle for reaching out to the public and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that it does so.
In reality, almost 40% of European citizens claim to hardly ever or never read articles on science in the media for two main reasons: they either do not understand the content or they do not care about scientific issues.
This represents a challenge we need to seize, by listening to European citizens and addressing their concerns. We need to help scientists in making science more attractive; we need to explain science in clear and understandable terms, and, we need to demonstrate the results of science, its use and impact on the daily life.
A particular aspect is how to meet the challenge of communicating the added value of European research. There is broad agreement amongst European citizens that collaborative research at EU level will become increasingly important and that it is more creative and effective than research carried out at national level.
More and more voices are calling for increased spending at EU level on research and development, echoing the Commission’s original proposal for the 2007-2013 budget. There is growing recognition that innovation is an important driver of economic growth and those who fail to follow the rhythm of innovation will simply fall far behind.
I don’t want this fate for the European Union. I want it to be the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world. This is why we are asking for doubling of the budget of the next Framework programme.
This is why we have identified 19 different areas where Commission and Member States should act to encourage private enterprise to invest more in research and to work, invest, research and innovate in Europe.
That is all well and good as a political context. But what we are talking about today is connecting with European citizens through science. For our part, we intend to approach communication in a more strategic way across all research areas, in order to make the most of the potential for communication of research.
The overwhelming majority of EU citizens hardly ever discuss science. Clearly this poses a challenge for all of us who believe that science merits a position in the European public sphere.
Why is it that three out of four EU citizens believe that because of science and technology there will be more opportunities for future generations - and yet - so few express an interest in finding out more by reading articles and watching TV shows with a scientific content? What can we do to bring these two closer together?
We need to meet two objectives. First, we should enhance the public recognition of the role of researchers in society. Secondly, we have to encourage researchers to acquire the necessary communication skills so that they in turn can inform society about their knowledge and discoveries.
Initiatives such as this year’s “Researchers in Europe” campaign saw just that – thousands of people from universities to public authorities, research centres and associations came together with the general public all over Europe to demonstrate the excitement of a career in research.
Our Science and Society programme has been particularly successful in supporting events that popularise science, for example by supporting science festivals together with interactive exhibitions, or innovative scientific education initiatives that reach out to young children and adults. We annually award the Descartes Prizes for Scientific Excellence and Science Communication, which provide a perfect opportunity to showcase the achievements of European researchers and those whose life work is getting people interested in science.
Communicating research must be a dynamic, on-going process. It requires effort and commitment by all actors, the media as well as the scientific community.
Most scientific journalists agree that reporting on research is a difficult task. Not only do they have to familiarise themselves with the scientific content and verify it but they also need to translate it for the public. Tight editorial deadlines will clash with the scientific practice of taking time to validate scientific outcomes. Scientists are often put off by the media’s tendency to over-simplify.
But really, if we consider, there is much that unites scientists and media professionals. Both, after all, are defined by their independence, their objectivity, their enquiring minds, their search for truth. And both groups face new challenges.
The explosion in television channels, and especially 24-hour news channels, and the accessibility of news via internet put new demands on those working in the media in the same way that technological advances change the working life for scientists.
The profile of viewers of scientific programmes is selective. Still, the majority of these believe that popular science programmes can increase knowledge and broaden our minds. So how do we get a wider audience for the science shows? How do we get more people to read about science and to understand how it affects their lives?
Clearly, I do not have all the answers. Indeed, one of the key objectives of this conference, perhaps the main one, is to hear your views on our plans to bring about fundamental change in the way we communicate science at European level.
What are these plans, in essence?
Seven out of ten EU citizens get most of their information via televisions. We need to make better use of this medium, and so we are considering investing in audiovisual co-productions which can then be used across different media outlets at national and local level.
We should be looking to reconnect with the immense possibilities of radio. Radio is a wonderful medium, as it accompanies people in their every day activities in a way that no other does.
We currently have two complimentary internet portals serving more than a quarter of a million users from the scientific community and also the more general public: Cordis, which by the way is celebrating its 15th anniversary during this Conference and Europa.
We are planning to create one single Science Portal, which will streamline their content and make them more user-friendly and appealing.
In order to bring the media closer to science, we are also considering a tool to support the training of journalists in European scientific issues.
We hope that these initiatives, plus others that might be developed during this conference, will increase our joint capacity to deliver and provide access to knowledge.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have great expectations for this conference.
I know that we can all agree about the need to improve our efforts in communicating science for all the reasons I have already outlined.
This conference, as I said before, is a unique opportunity to hear your views on our ideas for moving forward and improve them by learning from the many examples of excellent practice that are showcased over the next two days.
Last, but not least, let’s come out of this conference with a sense of community and purpose. Our final goal is that the 7th Framework Programme will be inspired and guided by this need to make society more keenly aware of the relevance of science.
Let us make science the coolest subject in school, the hot topic at the dinner table, the exciting front page headline.