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Developing new dialogue

Did the conference meet your expectations by effectively addressing the themes and topics of the programme?

"Where is the point? Why I think this conference was not successful? Some of the talks at the conference were given with the attitude: "This is cool because I do it", and other talks gave the impression that the speaker was behaving as if he or she was a teacher before a class students, and this did not help communication either. This attitude doesn't reduce the distance between people who originate from different kinds of social environments (science, press, environmental activist, and so on), because in the end everybody ends up digging into his/her own position, like small soldiers. What I mean is that, at the conference, we didn't have a real communication among people, just a succession of "didactical" expositions of facts. To show what I mean I will take an examples. At the end of the meeting everybody agreed that the lack of scientific knowledge among the public is one of the main problems, but nobody stood up to define what could be done about scientific popularisation."

"In my opinion the EMBL/EMBO meeting was a science and society conference in the sense that molecular biologists were gathered less to discuss about itself science, but more about their opinions on the social aspects, the possible effects of the use of new technologies, and on ethical issues in science. Indeed, this could be a good starting point in order to develop a "new dialogue".  Nevertheless, I was thinking, what are the other possible forums to address these issues? One can say, that they should be discussed with a greater emphasis on the non-scientist part of society. The politicians, the journalists and the social scientists who participated in the conference gave a few very good examples of how interesting and thought-provoking this could be. I think this part should become more important in the future. On the other hand there was a group in society which was absolutely not represented, namely scientists of other sciences, like physics, chemistry, or even the other branches of biology, e.g. ecology - It felt as if " science" had been defined as "molecular biology" during the conference."

"The main impression this conference gave me was that science (scientists) and Society (the others and all of us) still live on two remote planets. However, these planets are getting closer. It seems that scientists (and I do not know if I should include myself as belonging to that planet) are starting to realize that "the others" do not constitute an overcrowded mass of ignorant people, and that "the others" might be interested in what scientists do. However, it is still unclear (to all of us) how much "the others" want to know. The only good point that Vivienne Parry brought up is that "the others" know and want to know, but only when they need to know. This point is crucial for the continuation of the discussion between science and Society. Scientists seem to be divided between the "do not tell them, they are ignorant anyway" party, the "let's tell them everything" party, and the "let's do our work, and if something important happens, we'll tell" party. Which one to vote for? The first one is fascist, the second is patronizing-"leftish", the third is too prone to generate external pressures and to accumulate risk problems (what is important enough to disclose? Do we risk of another BSE case?). There goes another topic for discussion."

"In the light of comments from many speakers of a benefit to risk ratio I would like to make the following comments. I feel there is an under-representation of "negative" results in the science literature and therefore a huge amount of data is never revealed to the science community to be evaluated, let alone the public. By the term "negative results" I mean, for example, when technical strategies do not work or when a proposed hypothesis of biological mechanism cannot be proven. I think it is very difficult to publish such findings. In my opinion this leads us into a potentially dangerous position when we over-estimate how successfully we can control biological systems. By extension the possible applications of research findings are conceived in the ignorance of the unpublished difficulties. I agree with Orla Smith's comment that there is far too much importance given to the "latest" research results and the impression that knowledge gained from research is a slow and evolutionary process is not clear to the public. Moreover, scientists are sometimes very slow to say publicly that the experimental systems often to not work as originally perceived. I agree with Stefan Flothman that scientists rarely admit they have made mistakes. I think that we need to be able to discuss our work more openly i.e. the bad news with the good. Unfortunately the intense competition within areas of research has often created an atmosphere of distrust and secrecy. I think we have to be more open about our "failures" as well as our successes."

Did the conference meet your expectations by effectively addressing the themes and topics in the programme?

"I found that one basic mistake of many discussions was to confuse the terms "science" with "technology". This was very clear even in reports by excellent speakers. Since science does not only mean molecular biology, and, even less, some particular applications of molecular biology (because this is technology) and since the main interest of everybody should be the one of shaping a better world, not just of communicating science (or, worse, "selling science"), I found it limiting, in many discussions about GM crops, for example, not to have some other scientists, coming from ecology fields, speak about alternatives."

"Yes and no, depending on the speaker. I found that there still is a gap between most scientists and some social scientists. They do not seem to hear what the social scientists are saying."

"For me, the most interesting aspect was seeing how the science-society debate seems to be being framed among European biologists. In some ways, the issues at  the intersection of science and society are more up front than in the US. However, in some ways the debate is also more removed. For example, few here are still  talking about science being value-free or not being answerable to society."

"The quality of the conference presentations was very good. It made me feel excited to be a  scientist! However, the dialogue with society is still in the making and not acquired yet. Julian Davies deserves special mention: he has the qualities of a gifted scientist and communicator. As he demonstrated with his presentation on antibiotic resistance, perhaps the best dialogue is achieved when society is considered a colleague-in-arms rather than an educational charge. Another important  message that came across during these three days is the importance of timing communication to match the receptiveness of the public."

Do you think this conference has contributed anything new to the dialogue between science and society?

"All considered, I thought it was much better than other STS conferences I had attended in the past. People really engaged each other on the issues, it wasn't just polite interdisciplinarity. The presence of non-academics such as press people and industrialists was very useful."

"Your meeting was much more sensitive than many others to the fact that there are solid, scholarly, research-based critical perspectives on science and that these deserve to be represented to scientists. This is a lesson that many US genetics research centers have yet to learn. I do think that input from people like me, Wynne, and Marris could have been more productively integrated within the  program. Perhaps having an STS scholar on your planning board could help."

"The idea of this conference was very good. Maybe smaller Symposia dealings with special themes would lead to a more direct discussion between scientists and not scientists. It was a good but small step to a new dialogue. The beginning has been made."

"It has sharpened the idea that I should engage myself as an educator in schools or other circles at least a day or two per year."

Were any voices not adequately represented by the choice of Speakers and Panellists?

"Regarding the fact that the attempt was made to have a dialog between Science and Society I think that Society was underrepresented. While the selection of scientist was very diverse and interesting it was more a Science/Science dialog, even if some of the Scientists legitimately claimed that they are also part of Society. This opens the question who is representing Society? I do think inviting NGOs is one part of it. As far as I can recall only Alastair Kent and myself were NGO participants obviously representing totally different parts of the society. Unions, farmers-organisations, consumer-groups, women organisations, religious groups could be interesting to engage too. As we are talking about a globalised debate I also would highly recommend to engage NGOs from the South.

I also think that one should think to engage decision makers e.g. politicians. The biggest challenge is probably how to engage average citizens. How could an organiser create a safe environment, so that normal (randomly picked) citizens could talk to scientist, without taking the risk to look foolish talking. An idea that popped up in my mind was to set up a questions and answer panel were citizens ask questions and a group of scientist would answer." And vice versa.

"Consumers and their advocates were absent (except patient's groups). Greenpeace was represented by a single, very clever person, but the environmentalist position was hardly overrepresented!  Also, it may have helped to show how some non-molecular biologists (e.g., ecologists, clinicians) think about some of the issues of interest to genetics and molecular biology. Science, as we all  know, is not unitary, so the sharp divide between "science" on one side and "public" on the other is misleading.

One other fact must be plain to the organizers and perhaps unavoidable in Europe just now: few women and fewer non-European ethnics. Also, rather weighted toward senior people. If the comment format were more widely used, then younger people would have more of a chance to participate."

"Although a politician, the Mayor of Heidelberg, Beate Weber, was invited and contributed an interesting statement, she had no time to participate in the whole (or even part of the) meeting. I suggest that next time besides a high rank politician (who gives a talk) several lower rank politicians (from different ministries, like for agricultural, medical and environmental affairs) who might take time to follow the majority of talks from scientists, should be encouraged to participate. Interestingly, in the meeting Great Britain seemed to be somewhat over-represented, perhaps because they are ahead of other EMBO countries with a dialogue."

"Possibly 'the public' was not well enough represented. One idea would be to invite some young people especially interested in science from high school to present their ideas/fears/hopes in a panel. Or someone from the Green Party. Or someone involved in German television programming."

"The combination of voices (scientists, lawyers, scientific editors, other media representatives, a Greenpeace representative, the mayor of Heidelberg) was very diverse. However, there is still room for more non-scientists in this discussion, particularly those who have the most potential in bringing the dialog to other sectors of society. For example, school teachers and clinicians might be good people to recruit as participants and speakers."

"A few more female speakers wouldn't hurt. Equal representation seems not be foremost to the science community. Male speakers, all senior with a few exceptions. Where is the coming generation, who will have to live the consequences of their scientific father/mother figures? The scientists seem to belong all to the "geriatric" generation (I am also 60 years old by the way!)"