Science and Society. The Transfer to Appropriate Actions

When did science last enjoy such positive attention in the public limelight as during the March for Science on 22 April 2017? An unprecedented global protest in which in Germany alone – at 20 locations from Helgoland to Munich – far more than 30,000 people took part: researchers, students, university administration staff, politicians, NGOs – but also citizens, and many of them with their children.

Protagonists from different fields demonstrating together for the freedom of science, for their plurality and cosmopolitanism, the reliability of their verifiable findings, and their indispensability for prosperity and the sustainability of our society – this is new. A response to growing ignorance to facts, propaganda (‘fake news’), and disinformation, especially on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. And a protest against the previously unimaginable restriction of scientific freedom, brought about by political regimes in the US, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.

So far, the March for Science has not demonstrated a lasting effect

In 2018, no such similarly sized marches took place. It would appear that the solidarity between science and society did not hold for long. Additionally, it should be pointed out that even 30,000 demonstrators represent a modest number, measured by the 2.8 million students in Germany alone– without even counting the academic and administrative staff at the universities and research institutions.

The March for Science’s lack of a long-term effect is especially regrettable considering that the symptoms of the crisis that led to protestors taking to the streets in 2017 have not disappeared. On the contrary: if anything, they have increased. Communities are forming that wholly agree on their view of the world and only strengthen each other in their radicalism. Where science emphasises the opportunities of global interconnection, governments thwart the idea of the European Confederation through national isolationism. As a global competition attempts to draw the brightest minds into laboratories and lecture halls, where ethnic origin is completely irrelevant, growing sections of the population express clearly xenophobic mindsets. As science euphorically celebrates the opportunities for designing the future – artificial intelligence, genome editing, virtual learning worlds, and much more –, an increasing number of people reject or even deny clearly scientifically proven phenomena, for example anthropogenic climate change or the effectiveness of vaccinations.

Science does enjoy a considerable standing and high reputation in Germany; however, at the same time, it is becoming evident that parts of civil society – and by no means only population groups with no connection to science – are withdrawing from the discourse for a variety of reasons. They severely restrict their news consumption to information that simply validates their previously held opinion. The assembly of individual news feeds in social networks nurtures the polarisation of opinions. Communities are forming that wholly agree on their view of the world and only strengthen each other in their radicalism, sometimes even to the point of encouraging conspiracy theories.

Regression into a Tribal Society

Through social media, these homogenous communities form global connections and can create an immense impact in the virtual realm by means of forced sharing and commenting, even if this group merely represents a moderately sized circle in the real world (the ‘illusionary giant’ principle). Collectively, these groups polemicise deviating opinions in other communities with an intensity that borders on hate. As a result, we are, figuratively speaking, experiencing a regression into a tribal society. In this battle of emotions, cold facts fail to make an impact. On the contrary: studies show that people defend their view even more obstinately if they feel challenged by deviating information (‘backfire effect’). They appear to be immune to what others call the ‘scientific truth’.

Even though German science continues to hold onto its prestige, the community should be alarmed by such developments. Ignorance of facts is by no means specific to certain social backgrounds. And the trend can be observed around the world, accelerated and empowered through the Internet, the global outrage machine. The tweeting President of the United States, who, among other things, has invented a link between vaccinations and autism, represents a prominent example of science denial at the highest level of the hierarchy. If the president is sceptical, so are his followers. But if societal support continues to wane, this could endanger fundamental research on future topics.

A lack of understanding of science, but also unfulfilled expectations and “hopes for a miracle can cause elementary consequential problems ranging from a rejectionist attitude to turning towards pseudoscience”.

Neither politics nor the economy will invest in research areas if interest groups protest against these loudly enough and mobilise the public for their purposes. Since the ninety-two representatives of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party joined the parliament, the organised criticism of science has taken the stage in the German Bundestag.

If we bring to mind the status quo, the question becomes unavoidable: how could we reach this point? What is going wrong here? Why are more and more people distrusting science, not just in Germany? Which civil society actors play what part in this? But above all: with which mea­sures can these trends be effectively counteracted to keep Germany from sinking into the climate of an anti-scientific worldview and squandering its sustainability?

PUSH Memorandum and its Consequences

Almost exactly twenty years ago, the leading German scientific organisations set themselves the obligation of increasingly engaging in dialogue with the public as part of the PUSH Memorandum (Public Understanding of Sciences and Humanities). At the time, Great Britain, the US, and Australia were named as role models, as these countries had already been leading this dialogue with a broad public since the 1980s.

The motivation for PUSH stemmed from a deep insecurity within the population regarding the role of science, certainly comparable with today’s situation. The sciences, says the preamble, “embody progress on the one hand, but are also perceived as a threat to human life on the other”. Due to their high degree of specialisation, researchers had developed their own languages, making it impossible for laypeople to understand not only the content but also the methods and procedures. A lack of understanding of science, but also unfulfilled expectations and “hopes for a miracle can cause elementary consequential problems ranging from a rejectionist attitude to turning towards pseudoscience”.

Those who read the PUSH Memorandum today will be surprised, perhaps even dismayed, that the status description of the circumstances at the time appears entirely transferable to those of today. Currently, the tasks the participating institutions set themselves back then are still in place. This is because hardly any of them have been solved to such an extent that would make them relevant to the system. There is still no incentive system that rewards researchers for their commitment to science communication. Most third-party donors still do not allocate any kind of importance to achievements in this area. Up until today, science communication has not even managed to “establish itself as an additional feature of scientific reputation”, as demanded in the PUSH paper. It has remained a normative plea without consequences. The initiators have relied on voluntary action, because of course, not every personality automatically makes for a good communicator. And not every research area is even communicable.

At least one thing happened in the years following PUSH: an unprecedented establishment of press offices, marketing departments, and event agencies at all German universities and major scientific institutions. Instead of researchers seeking a dialogue with the public themselves, this task formulated by PUSH – in addition to many others – was merely delegated to newly created intermediaries.

The German Science in Dialogue (WiD) initiative works across institutions; the initiative was founded by the Donor’s Association for the Promotion of Humanities and Sciences in Germany in 1999 as an immediate mea­sure after PUSH was signed. WiD also publishes the annual ‘science barometer’, for which citizens are asked about their attitudes towards science and research.

Dimensions of Trust and Distrust

A look at the current science barometer shows that distrust towards scientists does not stem from a potential lack of skills or violation of the rules and standards of sound scientific practice. In fact, approximately eighty per cent of those surveyed said that they “completely” or “tend to” agree with the statement that scientists could be distrusted because they are “strongly dependent on their donors”. This corresponds to another result, according to which two-thirds of those surveyed doubt that “scientists conduct research in the public interest”.

What becomes evidently clear here is therefore that people do not distrust the expertise of science, but instead doubt that the research focuses on the common good. As part of the current trend of bashing the elite, it is suspected of being too closely aligned to political stipulations – which is also confirmed by the science barometer data –, therefore lacking independence and ultimately mainly looking out for its own financial advantages.

This warped perspective is, of course, not in science’s interest. After all, it needs society’s support to be able to continue researching the major future issues with its financial support (public grants).

The dialogue with the public which the scientific community strives to bring about through its own PR departments and institutions such as the WiD is in reality obviously often futile.

Scientific circles gauge certain aspects differently, too positively – and fail to see that the dialogue with the public which the scientific community strives to bring about through its own PR departments and institutions such as the WiD is in reality obviously often futile, and trust building through interaction is not taking place. A figure from an Allensbach survey highlights this, according to which ninety per cent of surveyed scientists are convinced that they can communicate important scientific research findings in a way that is understandable to laypeople. The vote of the surveyed journalists forms a stark contrast to this. Just twelve per cent of them trust in scientists’ ability to communicate in a way that is easy to understand.

Together with others, psychologist Rainer Bromme formulated three criteria that scientists must fulfil if they want to be perceived as credible:

  • Attribution of skills (expertise): a scientist possesses the necessary skills to produce knowledge and solve problems.
  • Attribution of integrity: a scientist follows justifiable rules and methods.
  • Attribution of good intentions (goodwill): a scientist focuses on the common good and benefits for others.

“Scientists are trusted less if they are associated with the intention of wanting to convince people”, says Bromme. Certainly, the majority of researchers will try to fulfil these criteria. But apparently, self and external perception differ greatly. A non-scientific expert illustrated this in a lecture for the Volkswagen Foundation in October 2017. Stefan Wegner, one of the CEOs of the major advertising agency Scholz & Friends, spoke of a “public misunderstanding” in relation to PUSH. Wegner listed four reasons for this lack of understanding:

  • Science is incapable of self-criticism.
  • Science always claims to know what is good and what is right.
  • Science is merely simulating its openness to dialogue.
  • Science is too closely interlinked with politics.

While they are all tough accusations, point four is probably met with the sharpest rejection in scientific circles, namely by referencing the scientific freedom guaranteed by the constitution. We will later highlight that this independence still does not represent an unlimited guarantee.

Wegner is particularly troubled by the claim to sole representation attested by the sciences. The public also perceives this as the ignorance of other opinions. As a form of infantilisation. Apparently, offers of dialogue from the sciences have not done much to change this perception. Even though PR employees at universities and scientific institutions and, of course, Science in Dialogue perform a commendable service. Since PUSH, countless interaction possibilities between science and society have been developed and tested; however, these were unable to prevent the worrying survey results.

Science’s Attitude Must Change

Twenty years after PUSH, the scientific system is giving the impression that, despite speeches attesting to the opposite, they have not developed a clear attitude to how important they consider mutual exchange with a lay audience. There are still no structures in place that make science communication attractive to researchers. Even if today, students complete their study programmes without ever having been confronted with the basics of science communication. Reputation continues to be primarily measured by the number of scientific publications and the amount of third-party funds received.

Why is this the case? First of all, many academics still do not consider science communication to be part of their job description. They only view research and teaching as core competences of universities and research institutions. Publicity work, the common argument says, would only further reduce the already limited working time for the two truly important tasks – aside from excessive committee work. Additionally, many think that the appeal for a more active exchange with the public to promote the legitimation of science is merely a pretext. In reality, they suggest, the purpose lies neither in promoting scientific literacy nor in proving a certain accountability to the main funders of the scientific system – the tax payers. Instead they think that science communication serves the institutions in securing an edge in the battle for attention in the (politically intended) competition for funding by shining the public spotlight on their own researchers.

Many still do not consider science communication to be part of their job description. They view only research and teaching as core competences of universities and research institutions.

Some critics go one step further and claim that publicity work opens the door to non-scientific influences. To put it bluntly: if everyone suddenly vied for attention, the research focuses would increasingly align themselves with media-suitable aspects. These suggest that scientists primarily research – and receive third-party funding for – subjects that make headlines. Ultimately, opening up science to laypeople gradually erodes scientific freedom. Risky fundamental research is barely funded anymore because it does not interest the mass media. Instead, more and more application-oriented research receives funding, particularly in areas of high social relevance, such as medicine, mobility, and artificial intelligence (Economy 4.0).

Does Science Need the Public in order to Work?

Critics of the ‘mediatisation’ of science include the two communication researchers Frank Marcinkowski and Matthias Kohring. In a lecture for the Volkswagen Foundation in 2014, they provocatively asked: “Does science need the public in order to work?” In their view: no. “There is no reason to assume that the scientific findings process would advance if as many people as possible watched or participated in the justification process.” The possibility of participation is principally given, “but tied to inclusion in science”. Certainly in reference to the PUSH Memorandum, both state that it was once believed that enlightening laypeople would also lead to an understanding of science. “This was never successful on a grand scale, but still has a rational draw that seems almost touching today.” In the meantime, the excessive pursuit of publicity means that science no longer gets around to doing the things that society actually needs.

What does this illustrate? The yearning for isolation in a figurative ivory tower? Concern that science is only orienting itself around topics that attract public attention?

Who Still Trusts Experts?

In fact, it should be noted that scientific journals are increasingly portraying research that is particularly ‘hot’ at the time on their covers. Those who want to keep up with the competition need to be quick and sharp. Science is not known for either quality. As a result, quite a bit of unripe research, despite peer reviews, ends up in journals and needs to be retracted afterwards. The non-replicability of many experiments, especially in natural and life sciences, has occupied the scientific community for a long time, as has plagiarism. The system failure postulated here contributes to the erosion of the flawless image that science has held among the public for a long time. Science should stop feigning infallibility. Fewer and fewer people are believing it.

Reputation continues to be primarily measured by the number of scientific publications and the amount of third-party funds received.

In Great Britain, more than 150 researchers of the Royal Society rang the alarm bells in 2016 and appealed to their fellow citizens not to vote for Brexit; it would be “a catastrophe” for science. We know the result. “The British have had enough of experts”, claimed Conser­vative Member of Parliament at the time, Michael Gove, who had at one point also served as State Secretary in the British Ministry of Education. He stated that the advice of experts was always “consistently wrong”.

Brexit is considered the first political triumph of the post-factual reality, taking place before the US presidential election. A slim majority of British voters followed the EU opponents. Even though they lied to their audience through their teeth, the people were determined to just trust the simple truths, the ‘perceived truth’, and to have their own EU prejudices confirmed by propaganda. They were not (any longer) receptive to a differentiated analysis as offered by the ‘experts’.

Why? More and more people seem to be overwhelmed by the speed of social change. Driven by the digital revolution, globalisation is creating an incredible synchronisation pressure that impacts nearly all life circumstances – cultures, traditions, perceptions – and evens out differences. “Our abilities to adapt are overstrained”, said Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his speech at the 2017 German Protestant Convention. “And this overstraining is producing counter-reactions – fear of a loss of identity, a return to what feels familiar: nation, region, ethnicity, religion.”

In short: the crisis of expertise is also a consequence of the fear of what is new. More and more people are afraid that they will be left behind on the way to the future. They believe that the so-called elites, which for them include scientists, are only looking out for themselves as opposed to the matters that are particularly important to society. This is creating distrust. And it brings us back to the preamble to the PUSH Memorandum mentioned earlier, which stated twenty years ago that the sciences “embody progress on the one hand, but are also perceived as a threat to human life on the other”.

Bowing to the supposed will of the voters, politicians brought about the end of green genetic engineering in Germany – and simultaneously proved that the basic right to scientific freedom can certainly be restricted if it seems politically opportune.

What can science do to present itself to the public in a more understandable way and regain its trust? The PUSH Memorandum was still shaped by a communication model that has been considered outdated for many years: the sender-receiver model. It was generally believed that facts could simply be presented to the public – for example, why green genetic engineering constitutes a research field with great benefits – and billions in funding would flow from politics and the private sector. We know how this ends.

A multitude of critics denied these scientific visions the approval they expected and started a widespread public debate that strayed further and further from evidence-­based knowledge and finally impelled politics to pull the plug. Bowing to the supposed will of the voters, politicians brought about the end of green genetic engineering in Germany – and simultaneously proved that the basic right to scientific freedom can certainly be restricted if it seems politically opportune.

After stem cell research also failed in a similar debacle, science PR finally came to the realisation that the public did not want to be lectured. Instead, it would require a certain passion to convince them and achieve sustainable acceptance for future scientific endeavours. A dialogue needs to replace the monologue. As Johannes Vogel, Director of the Berlin Museum of Natural History, says, “science needs to do more than just talk – it also needs to listen”.

Public Participation and Innovative Capability

Innovation is a social process that cannot be solely developed through science and the economy. New technological, economic, social, and ecological features can only prevail if society is open to them. Novel ways for citizens to participate could present an effective mea­sure in realising this goal. As part of the Federal Government’s High-Tech Forum, the working group Participatory Agenda Setting in Research and Innovation Policy dealt with impact opportunities. The concluding document states that participation could “build mutual understanding and trust and bring science and society closer together”. It would be crucial for people to be able to successfully introduce their questions, concerns, and wishes to scientific discourse. After all, what is more frustrating than an offer of conversation that is not taken seriously?

Agenda Setting Processes in Research and Innovation Policy

Therefore, participation only makes sense if open questions are actually discussed, if all participants have the opportunity to shape the discourse. Agenda setting processes for research and innovation policy lend themselves to this. These involve discussions of large-scale funding programmes for applied research and development, specifically regarding fields that directly affect society and coexistence, for example in the areas of health, digitalisation, bioeconomy, and energy.

Here, science must in the future prepare to be confronted with questions researchers do not necessarily ask themselves. For example, regarding ethic framework conditions. Or risks and uncertainties that constitute a fear of what is new. In the context of ‘medialisation of science’, too many healing promises have been spread prematurely, too many ‘breakthroughs’ sensationalised, which later proved to be unfounded. This has also cost the industry trust.

The dialogue process also opens up opportunities for science to gain added value, for example by accessing the ‘knowledge of the many’, which NGOs, citizen science associations, federations, but also the economy, politics, and other social actors have accumulated and which science has so far used far too rarely.

The participation model certainly also has its limits. Considering the scientific freedom guaranteed by the constitution, citizen participation can have a primarily ‘consultative character’, for example in the case of founding directional decisions based on broad social approval. If such a process had been introduced earlier, with clear expectation and role management as well as participation of the relevant actors, public acceptance of green genetic engineering and stem cell research may not have failed.

In short: the crisis of expertise is also a consequence of the fear of what is new. More and more people are afraid that they will be left behind on the way to the future.

But regardless of participation procedures, freedom for results-oriented basic research should remain in place; after all, it forms the basis for gaining fundamental new insights. Scientific freedom should continue to decide which subjects to focus on, which specific methods to use. After all, the knowledge asymmetry, especially in this highly specialised discourse, makes a dialogue on equal footing impossible. The experts’ knowledge edge over laypeople generally cannot be bridged – although involved scientists should always attempt to bridge the gap and describe scientific matters in a way that is understandable for laypeople. And to take the questions posed by a non-expert counterpart seriously.

Daring to Engage in more Dialogue

On behalf of the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, people were asked about the hopes and fears they associate with certain research fields. The list was topped by beneficial, socially relevant topics, led by ‘research on age-­related diseases’ (eighty-nine per cent positive). The ‘use of genetic engineering in agriculture’ came in last place (eighty-two per cent negative).

The more abstract the research at hand, the greater the risk of encountering hostility from laypeople.

If science wants to retain its position as a socially respected and future-shaping force in the 2020s, it needs to leave the edge of the playing field and enter the fray to a much greater extent. This will be an unfamiliar, perhaps even unsettling perspective to many. However, there seem to be no alternatives if we want to counter the long-term threat of curtailing scientific freedom and the already undeniable tendencies towards containing the ideal of an open, globally connected society.

The World Economic Forum in Davos recently included the social web in its list of the most significant threats to human freedom. Aside from the issue of trolling, social bots also contributed to its discreditation. The problem is aggravated by the problem of users’ media incompetence; in a global survey conducted at the beginning of 2018, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they were unable to distinguish between quality journalism and fake news. However, despite all restrictions, social media will continue to offer new possibilities for science communication and interaction. In addition, traditional face-to-face communication, a respectful exchange of arguments, remains essential.

Defending the Freedom of Science

Those who are able to describe the productive curiosity with which they approach their research, which solutions they hope for, and which potential benefit this could result in for society are unlikely to find themselves in the tainted position of stooge to obscure powers in the future.

However, science should not have to carry the burden of defending the freedom of science and an open society alone. It needs allies from other subsystems. Their internal PR departments are there to assist them with this. They have long recognised the necessity of dialogical science communication and set this down in the Guidelines for Good Science PR, adopted in 2016. Quality media, which are experiencing a trust crisis as well as refinancing issues themselves, should also offer their support.

Tax-funded public service broadcasting will therefore become even more important in the future. These broadcasting services can surely be encouraged to continue producing ambitious scientific programmes, even if only a demonstrable minority shows interest in them. Knowledge quiz shows are not an equivalent. Currently, the allocation for science and research makes up the smallest share in the budget of public service broadcasters: it accounts for just 0.07 per cent and must urgently be increased in the 2020s.

However, science should not have to carry the burden of defending the freedom of science and an open society alone.

Politics are also called on to support the scientific community in regaining lost trust through increased direct communication. It should act on the institutions, contribute to engagement in science communication, for example for appointments or setting performance targets receiving a similar weighting to publications and the acquisition of third-party funding through suitable framework changes.

Many members of the scientific community have come to understand what is at risk. And they are active in many places and in many ways– not only in meeting the standards that PUSH started with twenty years ago. Additionally, they are trying to fulfil the expectations of a society which is setting new demands, asking for information, explanation, and respect. Both online and offline.

“We cannot wait until people come to us”, Jutta Allmendinger said at the March for Science in Berlin. “We need to bring our findings to them.” And: “Many people are looking for certainty, for simple truths. This is understandable, and yet we cannot offer absolute truths. But probabilities, and that is already quite a lot.” In a highly dynamically changing world, scientific competence will be in greater demand than ever before.

Science Communication

How We Must Act

In light of the increasing scepticism towards the elite and science, the interaction between science, politics, and society must be reviewed critically. Even though openness to dialogue and trust building are a subject of discussion everywhere, an opening in terms of the transparency of processes and participation at eye level remains an exception.

If science wants to retain its status as a socially respected and future-shaping power in the 2020s, it needs to leave the edge of the playing field and join the fray to a much greater extent. The following steps can be taken to achieve this:

  • Testing new interactive dialogue formats, overcoming knowledge asymmetries.
  • Even more transparency in shaping future large-scale research programmes; integrating relevant civic actors and project funders of ‘citizen science’.
  • Also communicating the risks and boundaries of current and planned research as well as deviating opinions, alternatives, and aberrations (science should not purport to be omniscient and infallible).
  • Transparently taking civil society contributions into account, even critical ones, when defining a research agenda.
  • Participation offers and opinion research by means of consensus conferences, focus groups, and digital consultation and voting tools.

Dr. Wilhelm Krull (66) has held the position of Secretary General at the Volkswagen Foundation since 1996. Aside from his professional activities in science policy and research funding, he has and continues to serve on national, foreign, and international supervisory bodies and advisory boards in numerous functions. He studied German, Philosophy, Pedagogy, and Political Science. Additionally, he worked as DAAD Lecturer at the University of Oxford and held leading positions in the Max Planck Society and the German Science Council.