Future Scientists New Frontiers:
Women and Men
Paris (France) 2229 April 1998
to Federico Mayor, Director-General of UNESCO
Highlights of an International Encounter
Some 140 teenagers and their science teachers met scientists of a worldwide reputation at a unique International Encounter. Aged 1418, the students who gathered at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris came from 31 countries, from Fiji to Brazil, from South Africa to Lithuania. An equal number of boys and girls participated. The Encounter was organized by the UNESCO Science Sector and the Associated Schools Project network (ASPnet) in the Education Sector, in close cooperation with the French and Polish National Commissions for UNESCO, the French High Committee for the 100th Anniversary of the Discovery of Radioactivity, an organizing committee of distinguished scholars and a number of prestigious partners too numerous to detail here.
Unique as it was, this was no isolated encounter. It marked the launch of UNESCO's 'Future Scientists' campaign, a new and vital initiative to mobilize young people, especially girls, to pursue scientific studies and careers. The event thus provided a blueprint for future actions, both on a local and global scale.
It is vital to encourage young people, especially girls, to pursue scientific studies and careers. The 'Future Scientists' Paris Encounter did this by providing role models to inspire and provide examples; whether from the past (Pierre and Marie Curie) or the present (astronaut Claudie André-Deshays and physicist Christopher Llewellyn-Smith).
Dialogue between young people and eminent scientists took place during the Paris meeting, at the six workshops and on field trips to places of scientific interest. Their exchanges emphasized the importance of the ethical and humanistic applications of science. A Science and Society exhibition of material contributed by Associated Schools was also mounted. To sow the seeds of international cooperation among future scientists, the young participants were given the opportunity to learn together and from each other and share social and cultural activities. The Declaration the young people presented to UNESCOs Director-General, Federico Mayor, at the end of the meeting showed great maturity and a firm commitment to the ideals of dialogue, ethics and solidarity.
A menu of six workshops gave young people an unique opportunity to discuss major issues of science and society with top scientists from a variety of disciplines. If ideas generated energy, as one observer remarked, then the brainstorming that went on at the workshops generated a power supply all of its own:
From genetic engineering to space exploration, from the pros and cons of radioactivity to protecting the worlds water supply, scientists and other experts covered as many aspects of these topics as possible while encouraging participation by the young people and their teachers. Having presented different facets of each issue, they then answered questions and engaged in discussions.
The centenary of the discovery of radioactivity offered an ideal opportunity to take a fresh look at its applications and responsible use. Young people present at the radioactivity workshop were curious, desired to be better informed and regretted that this issue was studied so little in school. They pondered the positive and negative aspects of medical, military and agricultural applications of radioactivity and observed that the media rarely, if ever, discussed the positive aspects. Nuclear waste and its disposal was a pressing issue, as were the risks involved in nuclear accidents, symbolized by Chernobyl which awakened the world to the dangers of this technology. But young Ukranians from Chernobyl present at the radioactivity workshop warned against an alarmist attitude which engendered fear.
With the agreement that radioactivity knows no frontiers, ethics emerged as the dominant theme of the radioactivity workshop. The element of risk, whether chosen or imposed, was also debated, with the consensus that needs had to be balanced against risks in the perspective of sustainable development. One participant pointed out that the building of dams in Burkina Faso to cope with water shortages obliged its neighbour, Côte dIvoire, to build nuclear power stations in order to have an independent power supply.
Interdisciplinary teaching was seen as important, so that young people could understand the ´real problems of society and their implications for science, and have a clearer idea of the scientists role. Participants deplored the gap between education and real life.
Recommendations ranged from finding a positive use for the energy generated by nuclear waste to using nuclear detection techniques to find water and increasing vigilance in the international community, as prevention of nuclear accidents was an international responsibility. Above all, not to succumb to post-Chernobyl radiophobia.What climate for the years to come?
The need to reduce greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions emerged as a major preoccupation. Participants felt that new technologies urgently needed to be developed to replace polluting technologies, and that only science could solve this problem by developing alternative, non-polluting means of transport, for example. Societies must be more educated when dealing with ecology, remarked one participant. Then they can persuade governments to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Education was seen as the key to preventing or limiting climatic change: whether young children (we should educate young children about these problems earlier), women (if more women were educated about ecology, they could pass it on to their children) or older students, who, it was suggested, could help to collect scientifically valid data to be used in a worldwide initiative to monitor changes in climate.
Recommendations included a global system to monitor, control and reduce greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions, increased recycling in order to reduce the amount of waste, awareness-raising of climate and ecology issues through education and developing cheaper, cleaner technologies to generate energy.
From a unanimous no to human clones to an attempt at defining the responsibility of the scientist, no stone was left unturned in the genetics and health workshop, which also examined the role of science in general. The idea of cloning humans was rejected from a human rights point of view. Among the dangers of such a development was the possibility that human beings would come to be treated as objects and the risk that the technique would be used to favour certain ethnic groups and exclude others. However, the cloning of organs or cells could have benefits for individuals and society as long as it caused no harm. The responsibility of the scientist was evoked with the words no responsibility without freedom. It was felt that the role of the scientist should be discussed in more depth at roundtables with ethics experts. The discussion also embraced the technology gap between North and South, and generated ideas to redress the balance.
The need to popularize science was another theme of this workshop which favoured practical, down-to-earth solutions, such as making science more accessible through the creation of poles of scientific information or databases, reducing the technology gap between North and South by organizing networks to share scientific knowledge using fax, Internet and e-mail, raising awareness of the importance of science for development and, lastly, improving the quality of science education in developing countries. And above all, opposing the cloning of human beings.
Participants discussed the impact of physics, chemistry and biology on medicine, notably in the eradication of diseases. There was some speculation on what further progress could be anticipated in the near future, and how efficacious but costly new technologies could be made accessible to more people.
Participants recommended that combatting new diseases and pollution whenever scientifically possible be priorities for the scientific community.
The Big Bang theory and the increasing amount of space debris were among the subjects evoked in wide-ranging exchanges at the universe and space (particle physics) workshop which also touched on philosophy, cosmology and the Greek myths. The story of the universe, past, present and future, was a logical starting point, although the Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe got a sceptical reception as too simplistic and lacking in proof. It is a commonplace that the universe is expanding. But, participants wondered, was it really infinite and, if not, what would happen? It was agreed that observation and experimentation were never more necessary than today.
From questions like what? and how?, it was only a short step to why? and the workshop entered the realm of philosophy and cosmology.
Participants recommended that young people all over the world be educated about the benefits and risks of space research. Other ideas included pooling the resources of all countries in order to advance such research, and protecting the earth from internal and external threats, such as the collision of satellites and space debris and legislating to inform all countries about the dangers. For a workshop on space, there were some surprisingly down-to-earth conclusions. After all,' one participant remarked, ours is still the only planet in the solar system where life as we know it can be sustained. Life on earth therefore needs stable conditions: preserve air and water, the earths most precious resources, reduce pollution, preserve plant and animal life in the ecosystem.
The new telecommunication tools (television, portable telephones, Internet, etc.) should, in theory, help develop international understanding, agreed participants at the global communication workshop. But as these technologies were confined mainly to the industrialized countries, the gap between North and South seemed regrettably as wide as ever. Participants expressed the hope that these tools would soon be made available to enable the poorer countries to catch up by leapfrogging technology. Students could then have access to scientific and technological knowledge through Internet.
Participants showed a thirst for information about a resource that is vital but inequitably distributed. The spectre of running out of water altogether was evoked. Participants sought answers to questions such as: how are our water resources evolving? how are they being replenished as the seasons go by? They discussed the social, ecological and economic stakes involved in the politics of water, and ideas on how it could be managed on a sustainable basis as a common heritage, as well as how the species that live in it could be preserved.
ASPnet, which links some 5,500 schools in 160 countries around the world, is concerned with carrying out pilot projects and experimental activities to promote a culture of peace. Visit its website at http://www.unesco.org/education/educprog/asp.
The hopes of the young people gathered here reside in UNESCO. We ask the Organization to mobilize all its potential and technical expertise to help our actions obtain results.
As education is the basis of knowledge, it should be equally available to boys and girls. Students should be motivated to choose scientific subjects through university scholarships, which should be increasing, not decreasing. Teaching should be adapted to the needs of society. Scientific awareness should begin at primary-school level and interdisciplinary studies at secondary-school level.
Internet should reduce the gap between North and South. By financing access to, and training in, Internet in libraries in the South, the North could then rise to the challenge of globalization.
Since science has unlimited power, an international code of ethics should be established without delay, notably to explain the risks inherent in radioactivity and genetic engineering. Consumers have the right to know if the products they buy have been genetically modified.
As water and air are vital to public health, the countries of the North should help the countries of the South to fight pollution and preserve these precious resources.
As citizens of the earth, we should all be aware of the fragility of our planet. A world awareness-raising campaign should be organized, based essentially on UNESCOs Associated Schools Project network. UNESCO should also establish an International Scientific and Cultural Committee for Youth.