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Promotion of the role of Young People
in the Development of Science
and the Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge
Villa Lanna, Prague (Czech Republic), 25-26 March 1999

Third Central European Workshop

Contents
Prague Communiqué
Concerning the role of young scientists
With respect to the popularisation of scientific knowledge
Annotated working materials with notes from the meeting
(A) Promoting the Role of Young People in the Development of Science
(B) Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge and
the Treatment of Scientific Topics by the Media

Contacts

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Prague Communiqué

As part of the preparations for the World Conference on Science (Budapest, 26 June – 1 July 1999), the Czech National Commission for UNESCO and the Czech Academy of Sciences, in co-operation with UNESCO Vienna Office, organised the above-mentioned Workshop.

Delegations from the following countries attended the meeting: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The common denominator of the countries represented is a very similar cultural history in the 19th century and large part of the 20th century.

The Workshop recognised that both items under consideration at the meeting were thematically related to the values that are recognised by the societies in the countries represented at the meeting.

Concerning the role of young scientists, the Workshop agreed on the following key points:    Back to top

  • education at MSc and PhD level is to be encouraged, since it is the most important aspect of scientific research and development and hence, of the well being of mankind;

  • students heading for a PhD degree should be supported in a way that the scholarships awarded adequately ensure a proper living for themselves and, if applicable, for their families;

  • mobility of PhD students, and especially young post-doctoral scientists should be promoted, for it improves the quality of national science;

  • inbreeding scientists in one institution and one (small) country should be discouraged;

  • countries, even those with low per capita income, should maintain their science potential and should seek to attract foreign teachers and scientists;

  • external brain drain (i.e., departure of young scientists to foreign scientific and research institutions) is not to be considered as dangerous for the science potential of a particular country as much as internal brain drain (i.e., when promising young scientists join the private sector and leave research and development (R&D) activities in order to obtain decent living conditions);

  • external brain drain and later return to home country (institution) could be one of the means of integrating the science community in group of advanced countries;

  • teams of young scientists at postdoctoral level should be formed side by side with established ones;

  • young scientists should be encouraged to join the existing teams;

  • self-organised bodies at PhD and postdoctoral levels of young scientists could contribute to maintain the ‘health’ of institutions. They should take part in the evaluations of science and research in established institutions.

With respect to the popularisation of scientific knowledge, the Workshop came to the conclusion that:    Back to top

  • the popularisation of science should be geared to the achievements of science for the benefit of society: everyone needs science for daily life;

  • the recruitment of young people for science (R&D related activities) could be done through popular science and high school activities, although the methods should be changed;

  • management of human resources should be improved with emphasis on the availability of higher education for all talented young people – potential scientists;

  • there should be an easy access to information on benefits of science, on career opportunities in science, incentives for R&D involvement, etc. The responsibility for these aspects should lay with national organisations and UNESCO;

  • scientific literacy and awareness should be maintained throughout society and the school system;

  • public trust in mainstream science vs. pseudo-science should be encouraged. Moreover, an attempt should be made to remove the negative perception of science through the media such as public TV, radio, newspaper, etc.;

  • Views of post-modern philosophers on the dangers and misuses of science as well as views of alternative science (healers, parapsychology) should not be overemphasised;

  • the public media, i.e., public TV and radio stations, should play an important role in popularisation of scientific knowledge. Although they should allow adequate space for a range of opinions, they should provide information in mainstream (peer reviewed) science and play an important role in the de-mystification of science;

  • on the other hand, science must be able to communicate with all groups of citizens, especially with young persons through better communication techniques and facilities with a view to showing the achievements of science;

  • communication should also be reversed i.e. the scientific community should understand the needs of the public;

  • the responsibility of sharing the scientific knowledge of nations should lay with UNESCO.

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Annotated working materials with notes from the meeting

Introduction

Both major themes discussed in the Prague meeting are mutually related. We all are aware of the division of the world into North and South or developed and developing world. One of the features that divides these two worlds is the distinction in how these countries treat the science.

The hierarchy of values of society dominates both themes, i.e., role of young scientists in research and treatment of scientific topics by media. In the developing countries, especially in those which are politically unstable, science is not a priority issue. The role of young scientists or the treatment of scientific results by the media is not a major issue. It is now being understood that scientific research may be an essential means of meeting society’s needs for food, water, energy and material resources, and health care and in fighting poverty in general. Science and education are more appreciated in developed countries.

(A) Promoting the Role of Young People in the Development of Science     Back to top

However, let us face the reality of Central Europe. The President of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic stated some weeks ago that the situation of science at the end of the 19th century was better than it is now. The position of physicians, university professors were better in the social and financial hierarchy.

There are major cultural differences among the countries. The common denominator of the countries present at this meeting is rather their cultural history. Some of them were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and share thus certain historical moments such as educational system of our grandparents, similar approach to the cultural values.

Participants have noted that the science still stands fairly high in the hierarchy of values of citizens of all post communist countries. There are indications however that a great number of people do have an idealised or defective view of science: Science in the post/communist countries has served political goals and has been corrupted by political and ideological criteria. This is apparently changing. The UNESCO representative pointed out that there is a gradual shift in UNESCO giving young people greater say.

The Central European region has been traditionally dominated by humanitarian education. Technical education or the education of scientists was not considered to be equivalent to humanistic education. In the past, two cultures (in the sense of C.P. Snow) technocrats vs. humanists were competing for the leadership of society in the western nations as well as in the Eastern and Central Europe. They are not competing any more for dominance, since the third group i.e., post-modern leaders such as economists and social engineers who feel the temptation to lead human society, has emerged.

Response of the citizens (and hence in democratic society of politicians) to the role of science in society could be characterised by the answers to the question: Where should the taxpayers’ money go? If one asks man on the street in different parts of the world, there will be a different response, since these societies do have different approaches (an American approach, traditional European approach [that has changed], central European approach [culture dominates]). The answers are then directly related to the support of the science in a national budget or percentage of gross national product (GNP) devoted to the research and development. This in turn implies a chain of the relationship of social status of scientists (especially young scientists), level of public support to science, space and time devoted to science in media, and consequently motivation of young people to study, to devote their life paths to science and education etc.

The tradition and structure of the society is extremely difficult to change and humanities, not science in sensu stricto play very important role. This is however a long term problem.    Back to top

What are major reasons or motivations for science? Curiosity-driven motivation could well be supported or slowed down in schools or in the family. It is not definitively prestige or financial benefits that lead young people to do science. Is it the altruistic motivation for e.g., medical research, ecological motives, search for mineral resources etc.?

The education to creativity is low in most of the East Europeans schools, the financial success in science is not a motivation, nor is the prestige. Curiosity and a desire to discover are major motivations.

Is there motivation in primary and secondary schools? Students in grades 1 through 12 cannot be motivated toward science through a rigid curricula. Independent activities versus a strict prescribed curriculum, and enthusiastic teachers are important. The emphasis on relationships of disciplines for understanding the environment, nature, universe and role of human beings should be considered as ways to motivate young people. There is also lack of college education.

Participants noted that the selection of talents, including musical talents, starts very early in a child’s life, already in the first years of elementary school. There should be a similar selection of talents for scientific work. The educational systems are very rigid and do not have means to develop talents of young people. Unfortunately, contemporary systems lack an emphasis on creativity.

The role of media in a child’s formative years is extremely important. The motivation for science could be enhanced or weakened by the easy or difficult access to information channels. How expensive is education and how expensive is access to information? There are substantial differences in Internet access. Whereas in the US the public has easy access through free local phone connections, in the Czech Republic, the local phone system is extremely expensive for the average citizen.

Although it had not been discussed extensively, it appears that governmental support of public or private education should be encouraged.     Back to top

Role of the family. A report on the state of Czech society (authors Mateju and Vecernik) clearly indicates that children from educated families have access to higher education. This is a rather common feature throughout the world, although in Czech society this number exceeds all known figures by a factor of three. This may mean that primary and secondary schools do not motivate children .

Do schools teach children critical thinking, true experimentation? Do they record objectively their experiments? It is inherent in families and relates to social behaviour. What children do see in their parents they tend to follow later in life as their standard behaviour. It is nonsense to deal with nepotism.

Are secondary and primary school teachers qualified to motivate children for science? Those who prepare the basic curricula for the primary and secondary schools – who are they? They are not scientists; they are not qualified university teachers. Usually they are teachers who have failed as teachers, and as a number of bureaucrats working in government offices are unsuccessful scientists.

There is little understanding and hence little support in political representation for science. Most countries do not have such leading figures as Senator Brown or Senator Barbara Mikulski in the USA.

Unfortunately, at least in the Czech Republic, secondary school teachers think they do not need to be educated in any direction any more. If one argues that medical doctors must continuously re-educate themselves, then it is unacceptable for teachers to claim that what they have learned in school is sufficient. Some participants felt the lack of college education among European students entering university.     Back to top

The role of university education. Motivation of young people depends on the education they got, the role of the family, the role of the creative environment in school education, and the role of the consumer society. University teachers should serve as models for the young. The role of the family is extremely important in nations where schools are not creative and supportive of interest and motivation.

Participants have often mentioned that universities educate in specialised fields and suggested that rather general education (mathematics, physics, chemistry and all basic disciplines) should be education in thought. Ways of thinking, problem solving, creativity, etc. should be emphasised during the university studies.

A number participants commented that university teachers are important for motivating students to consider a career in science, although a number of participants pointed out that in universities and research institutions, there is a lot of dead-wood. There is often a ‘disconnect’ in co-operation between universities and academic institutes (e.g., in the Czech Republic).

How much work should an MSc or PhD student perform for a supervisor? Criteria differ; e.g., it seems that the US practice, where a student works on a supervisor’s project and publishes it with him, seems to some Europeans unacceptable.

A knowledge of English as the language of scientific communication has been emphasised.

In Eastern and Central Europe, the role of mentorship during the pre-graduate and postgraduate studies is not sufficiently emphasised in comparison to in the Anglo-Saxon world.    Back to top

Hierarchy of the values in the society. Early capitalism in the Central Europe stresses the economic aspects of living, such as making money through the self realisation of a person, the model of a successful businessman - cult of managers, extremely low respect for creative work and for physical work. Most of young people think that money is to be made at a stock exchange and are not aware of the necessity of research for industrial and agronomic production.

Looking at the hierarchy of values in Western (developed) society and the hierarchy of values in the post-communist countries, one finds a different order of priorities. In Western Europe a good education for children dominates the attention of their parents. This value dominates in Central and Eastern Europe only among relatively highly educated families.

Some negative perceptions of science are due to unrealistic expectations of society which followed enthusiasm for science following the Second World War.

Who are the positive heroes of new-born societies? Yuppies? In the social magazines or on commercial TV, the only positive hero is the young successful businessman - definitively not a scientist or artist. The businessman or manager has replaced the worker or collective farmer ‘hero’ of the previous political system. Even managers of failing industries were celebrated then.

With the change of political systems the need for the scientist to be a businessman, at least to be able to sell the results of his work, has increased. The level of grant writing skills is relatively low as well. Scientists need to develop and perfect this skill.

What attracts young people to and defers them from going into science? There was an extended discussion among participants on the state and professional level of science in Central and Eastern Europe, that science so far has not been competitive. Comments focused on ‘discrimination’ by Western scientific journals which view scientific research in these countries as sub-standard. The participants sharply disagreed on this issue.

Participants also discussed the question of when young scientists become ‘old scientists’. The answer is rather simple: when he/she becomes part of the establishment, of management, etc.     Back to top

  • Romantic motives. From discovery to realisation often takes tens of years; the results are not seen in the immediate future. The grant projects money applications and competition in science is a new feature of scientific life in Central and Eastern Europe, and these have not been fully understood by scientists. Young scientists who have some overseas or international experience, however, are prepared to compete. The passivity of the recent young generation of scientists was also noted.

  • Financial motives. It is easier to support a family from manager’s salary than from a scientist’s salary. Long discussion and numerous written contributions concerned this issue, especially possible mobility (almost impossible to find reasonably priced accommodation) etc.

  • Social recognition motives: achievements in sport versus science (or art) are recognised by society through financial rewards.

Some marginal motives were mentioned, such as jealousy, but this was not specifically directed at young scientists or the East European scientific community.

In Central and Eastern Europe, compared to West Europe, a small percentage of young people enter the universities -12% versus 30%, respectively. For this reason, there is a lower number of talented young people available for science.      Back to top

Let’s have a look at the evolution of science in Western society over past 50 years. Who were successful scientists in post-SecondWorld War years in the USA and Britain? Who are currently the successful postgraduate students in the US, UK or France? Racial connotations aside, they are Asians: Indians and Chinese primarily. The able ‘whites’ are in management, business and law. Only some have gone to medical schools. Who does the research? Science, i.e., the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences) have lost their prestige and attraction, resulting in low salaries and low social status.

Let’s have a look at the evolution of science in the central European society over past 50 years. The use of word ‘science’ or ‘scientific’ seems similar to these questionable terms: ‘scientology’, or ‘socialist science’. Social science noted the failure of true values, mistrust of the public in science. Who is doing science?

Participants noted that word ‘science’ was corrupted by ideological use and all forms of sciences formerly have served to political goals.

It is often said that we employ too many people in R&D. The figures on employment in research and development fields per country per 1000 inhabitants (USA - 7.0, Japan - 7.8, Germany - 6.0, Czech Republic - 2.0) show something different.

Brain drain of young scientists from Central Europe: is it dangerous or not? Look at the number of Russians now employed in the USA. With early capitalism, too many research laboratories in industry were abolished and research, even laboratory tests, moved to other countries.

Participants have noted that in a relatively small society with few universities, one rather specific language and a low chance of mobility, inbreeding is a rather common and accepted feature – because of a lack of choice. International exchange including the ‘external brain drain’ should be accepted as a common practice.

On the other hand, the internal brain drain is extremely dangerous as is the unemployment of young graduates or postgraduates. Science is a way of life: the search for new solutions, discoveries, acquirement of new knowledge etc. If a student’s education is interrupted for financial or other reasons, his/her return to science is rather difficult. This is not the case of ‘external brain’.     Back to top

Who is returning? Even if one out of four scientists who left returns to continue in science, the brain drain is justified. The return of a visiting or ‘brain drained’ scientist often means a drop in the living standards of this scientist and is often accompanied by a lack understanding of this reality by those at the parent organisation.

We often talk about international cooperation and exchanges. What do we have to offer? Is it possible to employ the foreign young scientist in Czech universities or Czech research institutions? It is impossible unless such a scientist has the support of his home organisation (e.g., Fulbright scholarship). Such a scientist will earn too little money to ‘survive’ in a foreign environment. A PhD student will earn at most USD200 a month (with expenses exceeding USD300 a month) and will also be responsible for paying a social security tax.

(B) Popularisation of Scientific Knowledge and the Treatment of Scientific Topics by the Media    Back to top

Journalists have quite different way of looking at problems than scientists do. Their products must sell. News must be interesting and attract readers. Science news, however, do not raise as much attention as a report on mysterious circles in fields of wheat or the alleged landing of UFOs. Should scientists use the criteria of journalists? Do we need to ‘feed’ the media, politicians, and educational systems with headline tabloid news?

In market economies, especially in the newly emerged ones (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary), tabloid type information does play an extremely large role and ‘people want it’. Apparently the ‘maturing’ of a society leads to a demand for serious, very thorough information such as is carried by The New York Times ‘Science Times’ page.

Did we fail to stress the role of science in the modern, ‘easy’ life, where most of the physical work has been removed, the role of so-called ‘energy slaves’ (freezers, means of transport)? Is the role of science in this really appreciated by society? Does it understand that all these things are result of research and development? Yes, scientists and journalists have failed to point out the role of science in modern life. Medical sciences with antibiotics, immuno-suppressives, and modern medicaments is the best example, and so is the technology of transport.

Is or is not science responsible for what it has done? Science itself is ethically neutral, but the results of science can be used for good or evil. Post-modernistic ideologues stress that science was a ‘parasite on cold war’, etc. Journalists have uncritically promulgated these unjustified claims.

The language we speak in science and the language which is spoken by the lay community differs greatly, and not only in tone. Let us admit that even within science there are semantic uncertainties: each scientific discipline uses different terminology, every branch of science has it own language (jargon, or ‘newspeak’, if you prefer), which often masks the essential, true meaning. The language of journalists, on the other hand, is much ‘stronger’ and more definite than any language of science.

Do people understand the role of science in the health of the population? The media in general do not provide an accurate picture of science. There has been an extension of average life expectancy for most people in the West. Does the general public realise that in those ‘golden old years’ of the past there were epidemics of plague, polio, smallpox, and that most people have lived in poverty, etc.? The media devotes much more space to the mistreatment of single patient by a medical doctor than to the successful treatment of flu epidemics affecting millions of people.

Science’s role in critical thinking. Everyday life nowadays doesn’t allow time or space for independent thinking, especially with a glut of media outlets in the world. The average man likes simple, clear and unambiguous solutions, decisions – made by someone else; he/she does not like to think – it is difficult. That’s why fundamentalist movements are so successful especially in the less developed world. Is there way to teach critical thinking and sound scepticism that is natural to any science?

Why are ‘pseudo-science’, alternative medicines, spiritual ‘pseudo-values’ and other irrational concepts so enormously successful in the modern world, not only in Central or East European societies but also in the West? This is again the problem of all the countries mentioned: the tendency of people to accept pseudo-science. It is however very difficult to fight myths and such claims as ‘only we are right’ makes the position of science more difficult. Very often it has a counterproductive effect.

Most prominent causes of alternative /non-scientific/ views are:      Back to top

  • scientific illiteracy (caused by the education in faith and against rational thinking, and teaching through the memorisation)
  • attractiveness of the magical, mystical and irrational approach
  • reaction to the modern, consumer world (modern materialism) and technical civilisation
  • post-modern philosophy
  • complexity of science
  • negative role of media in ‘headlines’
  • overstressed role of primitive and pseudo-ecological groups (everyone thinks that he/she understands environmental issues)

What is the role of the commercial sphere i.e., role of commercial versus public media? Differences in the news-stands in Paris (pop-science magazines) or Prague (porno magazines): Why have most of the pop-science magazines have commercially failed in Eastern and Central Europe? Where does the money go from ads of high-tech goods (cars with catalysers, xerox machines, digital TV)? Do medical technologies return at least part of their revenues to research and development?

What is the role of the public media in the popularisation of science? Should the criteria of ‘people interest’ be used in evaluating the media? Is a task of media to educate or not?

The answer is the last question is no, the media’s role is not to educate. The media should inform but it should be the responsibility of each citizen to follow his curiosity to find the information, and educate himself. If the media are strictly driven by the interest of viewer, science suffers. However, what are we to think about the media which publicise the mistreated of a few patients by a doctor while ignoring the scores of people who were treated properly and were cured?

What is the role of the scientific community? Is it possible to blame scientists who are unable to explain to public what they are doing, and why they are doing this and not that? The answer is simple. In a competitive environment, i.e., in project-oriented financing there is no time for a scientist to explain to non-specialists what he/she is doing. There are excellent scientists who cannot speak, write or act on behalf of science. On the other hand, it is necessary to change the perception of science of both non-specialists and politicians. It is one of the major tasks for the media, although it is also difficult to change the media’s perception of science. The media do want strict, simple and straightforward answers to any often complex problem they raise. Such answers do not exist in modern science. Only the believers usually provide such answers.

Who should pay for the presentation of science? (The grant system in Czech Republic for example does not contain budgetary items supporting the ‘public outreach of the science’, i.e., the popularisation of science. When it came to the budget for R&D, public outreach / popularisation was the first to be slimmed down. North American institution do have such items as public outreach included in their budgets).

Do we need science writers? What should education for science writers consist of – an emphasis on journalism or science? What is the role of science lobbies in governmental institutions (parliament)? Is there a need for regional pop-science centre? These questions were not properly discussed although it was generally understood that UNESCO should take the responsibility for sharing scientific knowledge, dissemination of it,etc.

What should the media stress to the public? (or What should the public be aware of?) The participants discussed in detail a number of related issues and concluded that:    Back to top

  • The popularisation of science should be oriented to the positive achievements of science for the benefit of society: everyone needs science for daily life and science is one of the best approaches to make life better (Karl Popper).

  • It should be understood by media that the methodology of science differs from that of investigative journalism, that there is a ‘prescribed’ sequence of steps for the acceptance of thoughts from hypothesis to theory and to paradigm, and that the observations, repeated experiments do play an important role. Science prefers experiments that are reproducible, quantifiable (verification of the other group of scientists) and that measuring (observations) must be independent of the scientists doing the measuring (observations).

  • The public should be aware that good science requires critical thinking, critical reviews as well as scepticism, that modern science is dynamic and that models which explain the observations and phenomena do change with time. Critical reviews (peer reviews) should be used to confirm validity of observations and interpretation or misinterpretation of data.

  • The management of human resources plays an important role in the presentation of science in the media. Management should be improved with the stress on the availability of higher education for all talented young people – the potential scientist and also talented science writers. The recruitment of young people to science (R&D) could be done through popular science and high school activities, although the methods should be changed.

  • Both the media and young people should have easy access to information on benefits of science, careers in science, opportunities, and incentives for a career in R&D. While the responsibility lies with the national organisations such as ministries of education, the role of UNESCO should also be emphasised.

  • Scientific literacy and awareness should be maintained as high as possible through society and the school system Participants have advocated utmost need of continuous education especially of the teachers who influence the young generation. Though this is the responsibility of national bodies, UNESCO could play an important role in this respect.

  • Public trust in mainstream science vs. pseudo-science should be encouraged, an attempt to remove the negative perception of science should be made through the media such as public TV, radio, newspapers, etc. Views of post-modern philosophers on the danger and misuse of science as well as views of alternative science (healers, parapsychology) should not be overemphasised.

  • The public media, e.g., public TV and radio stations should play an important role in the popularisation of scientific knowledge. Although they should provide the space for a wide spectrum of opinions, they should provide information in main-stream (peer reviewed) science and can play an important role in the de-mystification of science

  • On the other hand, science must be able to communicate with all groups of citizens especially young ones through enhanced communication between science and its outcomes. It appears that in most of the post-communist countries there is a lack of science writers. Communication should be also reversed, i.e., the scientific community should understand the needs of the public, and this can be achieved through qualified communication with the media.

  • The responsibility for sharing scientific knowledge among nations of the world should lie with UNESCO.

 

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