Research must not be a closed circuit

The Minister for Higher Education and Science Sofie Carsten Nielsen's speech at conference on Responsible Research and Innovation 11 December 2014 in Copenhagen.

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Broad scientific dialogue

Thank you. I would like to welcome you all.

I am very pleased that today's conference helps us focus attention on the dialogue between science and society. Because research is too important to be just the purview of researchers.

Research creates jobs. Research saves lives.Research betters the world.

But a number of dilemmas also arise.

Something as simple as a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast can raise some serious questions.

Should we use food sources, like corn, to produce fuel?

And should we use genetic modification to create plants that can tolerate pesticides and are resistant to drought?

Another everyday example could be turning on the radiator at home.

Where should the heat come from? Should we extract shale gas in Denmark if there are potential environmental risks?

Or what about a completely different area: Should we use the latest breakthroughs in stem-cell research to create human organs and thereby increase the chances of surviving a serious illness?

Questions like these are not just a matter of fact or fiction. It is also about the make-up of our society. Which risks are we willing to take. And how we balance the advantages and disadvantages of research and new technology.

The challenges we face call for a dialogue between researchers and society.

And this dialogue has never been more valuable and more necessary than it is today.

Back in 2012 during the Danish Presidency of the EU, a conference on Science in Dialogue was held at the University of Southern Denmark.

My predecessor Morten Østergaard said at the time, “that we are no longer talking about the best science in the world – but rather the best science for the world”.  

From my perspective, his description is an ideal one of socially responsible research. 

Research must not be a closed circuit

Research being carried out today influences how society will be shaped tomorrow.

The role and importance of research is enormous.

Research should therefore not be carried out in a closed circuit, isolated from the wider population.

Quite the opposite; we must ensure that research takes societal values into account.

Everyone in a democratic society has the right to take part in decisions that have vital influence on our future. Research uses many resources and can also have social, ethical, cultural and environmental consequences.

So researchers should not carry the torch alone. We must ensure that research is socially engaged and socially responsible.

Allow me to present an example: A couple of years ago, a British research team proposed a geoengineering project.

A gigantic balloon would be released into the atmosphere where it would emit particles that would reduce the sun's radiation on the planet. The research project was an attempt to reverse climate change. But does that justify turning the whole of Earth's atmosphere into a giant laboratory?

For example, it was unknown what kind of long-term consequences these particles would have on the atmosphere and therefore for living conditions on Earth.

It is clear that these kinds of decisions cannot be made by researchers alone and should involve all of society.

Nor do researchers always have sufficient knowledge to ensure the best technological development.

Genetically modified food is a good example. The development of GM crops in the 80's and 90's occurred in such a way that did not take consumer and societal values into account.

It led to a serious setback for that technological development which affects us still to this day.

If researchers had engaged in more dialogue with the public, farmers and other stakeholders, then maybe technology could have been developed that had greater respect for organic food, farming and environmental and cultural values.

If technological development is not concurrent with significant societal values, it risks being a wasted investment – or not being optimally used.

Greater openness of research results and better involvement in the research process will not just benefit society – it will also better the research.

Open access

Knowledge must not be hidden. It should not be secret.

And I see the discussions on Open Access to research as part of something greater. Precisely how we want to develop as a society.

The government has an ambitious national strategy for Open Access, which was announced earlier this year.

The vision is to create free access for all citizens, researchers and companies to all research articles from Danish research institutions financed by public authorities and private foundations. Open Access has many benefits.

Firstly, it is crucial to provide the public with access to knowledge to allow them more equality in a democratic society.

Secondly, increased access to scientific articles will allow for more effective knowledge-sharing between research institutions and business.

And thirdly, it will help ensure the latest knowledge is more quickly disseminated and leads to more innovation and growth in society. So I have great expectations for Open Access.

Need for better dialogue   Better dialogue between researchers, the public and business ensures that researchers are more in line with society's needs and values.

But creating such a dialogue is not always easy. Describing the large and long-term consequences of their research, does not always come easy to researchers.

Just as it can be difficult to describe research in an easy-to-understand manner.

Likewise, many ordinary members of the public know too little about research to want to take part in the debate.

And the media mostly writes about ground-breaking results instead of explaining how research is actually carried out.

I think all parties need to improve their dialogue efforts.

We must go out of our way to ask questions and tackle the difficult discussions.

We should be neither blindly fascinated by research, nor keep our distance with biased negative opinions.

It is too simple to make it choice between Frankenstein and Florence Nightingale.

It is crucial to achieve a balance between the many considerations and discuss the society that we wish to create. And a good dialogue between society and science is a prerequisite for this balance.

More questions than answers

So it is clear that research is important to everyone, not just researchers.

I do not yet have the answer to how we ensure that scientists carry out socially responsible research.

But I do have a number of questions: Should all researchers make a commitment to carry out socially responsible research?

And how does independent research work hand in hand with honoring societal values?

Should society be able to call a halt to certain types of research, for example, the large balloon that was to be launched into the atmosphere?

And are there simply certain areas that researchers should avoid because societal values dictate that some research is wrong?

When it comes to socially responsible research, maybe there are more questions than answers right now. But that is a good starting point for dialogue.

The more we talk about these things, the more we can learn from each other.

It is difficult. So we need to practice. And that is why this conference today is a valuable part of the debate.

Thank you.

last modified Dec 18, 2014