Physics, chemistry, biology and most of the other scientific areas underwent extremely rapid progress during the past few decades. This development posed new questions concerning the role of scientists in an open society. The position of scientists, however, is not easy since they may, as responsible citizens, be running into personal conflict. On the one hand, they are committed to their main task, namely to extend knowledge in their research areas. On the other hand, they are aware that this knowledge provides not only progress for humanity but also tools for destructive and ruinous consequences. This latter point is one reason scientists have lost a great deal of the reputation which their academic predecessors enjoyed until relatively recently, and the credibility continues to erode. Pointing out both the positive evidence of scientific progress and the potential insecurity associated with it is currently the primary task of scientists in its interaction with society. Their increasing involvement in everyday public affairs, in politics and in contact with the public is absolutely essential.
It is quite understandable that many people perceive as dangerous for humanity some consequences of the tremendous acceleration of developments in science and technology, and that it awakens anxiety throughout society. In Switzerland, anti-scientific fears were manifested most clearly in a public referendum which sought to seriously restrict if not end gene research -- the so-called "Genschutzinitiative" in 1998.
Some aspects of critical attitudes against scientific research, apparently similar in all Western countries, are alarming. They are reflected particularly in the insufficient public funding for basic research, which leads in some countries to a critical deficit and resulting adverse changes in the structures of research institutions. As a result of this, the administrative burden faced by many scientists is increasing, so that time for actual scientific activities is insufficient.
Many university teachers and scientists are concerned that the teaching process and the educational calibre of graduates is being lowered. Loss of public support may be one cause of these problems. It is ironical that this has happened at a time when science and technology have contributed considerably to the tremendous prosperity which this society enjoys. Answers to a question addressing the reasons may be rather divergent. Some facts, however, are obvious.
Firstly, scientific knowledge was not always solely used for the benefit of humanity, which, as the last half century has tragically demonstrated, sometimes led to catastrophic consequences. Also, several disastrous events have been associated with modern technologies, including severe medical accidents. Secondly, teaching science at primary and high schools can scarcely keep up with the rapid progress in the various scientific disciplines and as a result the level of public basic scientific knowledge is low. Incompetent educational systems and organisations promoting antirational tendencies are in many instances jointly responsible for this situation. Thirdly, scientists are generally not in a position to convey their message to the public, be it due to the lack of time or insufficient training for such a unfamiliar task. And finally, politicians rather frequently show an amazing ignorance in all matters concerning modern science and technology. It is therefore no wonder that a low priority is frequently given to the support of basic science research in budget debates and voting in the parliaments.
It is becoming more obvious that the scientific community has also lost some of its self-confidence in recent years. A reason for that is found in the inconstant, even fickle public attitude earlier alluded to and also in the substantial influence of anti-scientific lobbies. However, these are not the only reasons. Another, equally important factor involves science philosophy which is reflected especially in methodological considerations of individual disciplines. Contemporary science uses epistemic tools which allow a very critical testing of hypothesis. Only a restricted number of assumptions stand the critical examination by experiments, analytical procedures and empirical observations, and is ultimately represented in scientific theory. This is not a new phenomenon; it arrived with the development of quantum physics, which raised serious doubts about humanity's cognitive abilities. Consequently, traditional science ceased to be the only correct view of the world in contemporary society. Even more importantly, methods and tools successfully used in past decades were sharply criticised by some scholars and philosophical schools. This made it obvious that self-reflection is absolutely necessary.
Some of these and similar topics were discussed at the World Conference on Science in Budapest during the summer of 1999 ( http://www.unesco.org/science/wcs/)
the European political changes in 1989, the Swiss National
Science Foundation (NF) began supporting collaborative research projects
involving Swiss applicants and institutions in Eastern and Central European
countries. Two such projects were focused on the collaboration between the
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH)
and the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic
in Prague. Questions under general discussion include research projects and
teaching activities, the role of science in contemporary society, relationships
between scientists and their fellow citizens, transfer of scientific information
to the public, teaching at the universities and contacts with politicians
and media. It soon became apparent that many of these "burning"
problems have common features in both the new democracies in Central Europe
and in the German speaking domain. Therefore, the President of the Czech Academy
of Sciences, Professor Rudolf Zahradnik, invited
a small ad hoc group of scientists from Switzerland, Germany and the Czech
Republic to Prague for a broader discussion. Several participants of this
meeting are at various levels involved in the science policy of their own
countries as consultants, members of governmental and non-governmental committees,
or board members of scientific associations. The recommendation to continue
these discussions and to make results of them accessible to broader circles
of the interested public found general assent. The group (about 25 participants)
met at the guest facility of the Czech Academy in Prague (Villa
Lanna), for the first time in January 1999. The project was originally
supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation
on behalf of DEZA (Swiss Federal Department for
Development and Co-operation with Foreign Countries) through 1999 when partnership
programs with developed Central European countries expired. Support also came
from the ETH Zürich, the Czech Academy, and more recently, from the OPO-Stiftung,
At the first two meetings, the group began debating the present position of science in society and its impact on public affairs. The second colloquium (as they have been termed) took place in November 1999. A comparison has shown that virtually similar problems occur in countries of all participants, despite differences in the organisation of their democratic institutions. The third meeting was held in January 2001 in the presence of the Rector of the ETH Zürich, the president of INTERPHARMA Basel, and the Czech media (organised by the Press Department of the Czech Academy).
Members of the Villa Lanna Group (as it has come to be known) consider the following concepts as particularly important for detailed discussion.
Relationships between scientific and "alternative" (non-scientific) methodology. The general public and certain media, especially in newly emerging democracies, seem unusually inclined to alternatives to science, sometimes attracted to such dangerous fads as charlatanism as an alternative to medical care, soothsayers foretelling world catastrophes, etc.
Communicating information to the public.
University education: Curricula in the humanities and in science for individual groups of students, and general didactic tools.
"Inside science": What tools and possibilities does science possess to achieve its goals? Discussion about models as tools, structures and activities, already started on the virtual level and should be continued. They can be summarised in the following theses:
Science and political affairs: The Swiss experience with public voting about scientific and technological initiatives is a case in point.
Folkers, Prof. Dr. Gerd, Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, ETH Zürich
Havel, Doc. Dr. Ivan, Center for Theoretical Study, Academy of Sciences CR, Praha
Konopasek, Doc. Dr. Zdenek , Center for Theoretical Study, Academy of Sciences CR, Praha
Plika, Prof. Dr.Vladimír, Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, ETH Zürich
Zahradník, Prof. Dr. Rudolf, Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry, Academy of Sciences CR, Praha
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH), Switzerland
Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic
Center for Theoretical Study, Academy of Sciences CR and Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic