The project “MIRRORS - Monitoring Ideas Regarding Research Organizations and Reasons in Science” is financied by the European Commissione according to the 7th Frame Program. The Work programme topics addressed is: SiS-2007- - Revisiting the challenges of the interaction between science and politics in the European knowledge-based society. The coordinator of the research is prof. Francesco Coniglione and the partecipant organization is the Dipartimento di Processi Formativi - University of Catania.

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Prof. Francesco Coniglione


Dipartimento di Processi Formativi

1.Summary of work plan

Our project has the duration of two years and consists of two parts.

The first part involves collecting, coordinating and critically analyzing descriptive models, worked out by philosophers, historians and sociologists of science, concerning the relationship between science, politics and society.

The second part aims at discussing and proposing viable practical applications of such models in order to convert the knowledge acquired into effective social policies.

During the first year, once the management structure of the project has been established, we intend to organize a series of seminars which will involve both our research team and other scholars. Seminars will be preceded by periods of research concerning the topics to be discussed. The results of this research will be published on a website specifically designed for the project.

At the end of the first year a round table involving all the participants and other scholars will be held at the University of Catania, in order to evaluate the achievements of the first part of the project and to propose new lines of research that will be developed in the second year.

Capitalising on the knowledge acquired during the first stage, the second part of the project, to be carried out in the second year, divides further into two steps.

The first step consists of the practical application of the studied models to the dynamics of the relationship between science and society in the interaction between EU member states scientific policies. Europe, in fact, is a compound entity in which scientific research policies are already in use at a national level. These policies take into account particular social factors relative to the cultural background of each nation. By analysing them individually, it is possible to explore the possibility of finding a common policy for the EU member states which take their differences into account.

In the second step, we rely on the expertise acquired to take a normative stance, namely to suggest sound research policies for the construction of a European knowledge-based society.

Two series of seminars will be held in the second year of the project, and they will be followed by a final conference in which we intend to invite political institutions at a local, national and European level, in order to discuss the results of our research together.

2.Aims and objectives

The 2000 Lisbon Conference stated the goal to make the European Union “the most competitive knowledge-based society and economy” by 2010. Our project arose after critical reflection on the possibility of fulfilling such a goal and the desire to contribute to its realization. As philosophers, historians and sociologists of science, trained to analyse decision-making processes in science and technology policy, we think that a clear understanding of the dynamics linking science and society might be the key factor in achieving this goal. If our aim is to make the EU a knowledge-based society, then EU citizens must become part of the decision-making process in science and technology policy.

Historically, the link between science, society and democracy is at the base of western civilization. The West learned from the scientific ideal of rationality to submit established moral and cultural authority to critical scrutiny, to tolerate others’ ideas and convictions and to trust in a joint effort towards the progress of knowledge. As part of our heritage, an implicit contract between science and society did not need to become explicit, namely scientists did not need to account for their choices to the general public.

Scientists have enjoyed unconditioned support from political institutions due to their role in military industry, like during the Second World War and the cold war. Moreover, the XX century was an age of rapid technological change, a time in which people experienced probably the most dramatic changes ever seen in world history. The unending succession of industrial revolutions radically altered both the perception of reality and the life habits of most people, since electricity, TV, radio and, more recently, computers and the Internet have become part of the everyday life of western citizens. This helped science to gain widespread social acceptance, given that, together with its technological applications, it was considered a source of everlasting improvement for society. As a matter of fact, governments quickly realized the importance of science for economic development and supported its progress through the establishment of National Science Foundations.

However, at the end of the cold war, military-industrial complexes and their scientific cadres started to decline as a consequence of economic conversion to civilian industry. This freed up resources with which some of mankind’s most pressing challenges, such as food supply, public health, global climate change and protection of biodiversity could be addressed.

Challenges like these involve citizens directly, not just as tax-payers but also as agents responsible for their actions. Similar to what had happened in the past to governments and the Catholic Church, the scientific establishment has seemingly lost its sacred social role, having to account for their choices not only to the general public, but also to the same institutions which had previously supported them unconditionally.

“Accountability”, therefore, enters the matrix of factors involving the decision-making processes in science and technology policy. Moreover, scientists have not just to account for their choices, they have to involve citizens directly in the decision-making process in order to democratise it.

Through accountability, society acts on scientists’ choices, conditioning them. Not just public institutions but even private industry would not be willing to support research contrary to public opinion. Scientists have to take this into account in order to obtain financial support. They have to make their choices explicit and are requested to state them clearly, outlining risks as well as short and long-term consequences: a task that is in itself difficult to accomplish at the frontier of research, since long-term consequences can hardly be predicted or controlled in advance.

Scientists’ efforts, therefore, take the form of a complex negotiation with several social groups such as national and local politicians, private companies, lobbies, so-called “moral authorities” and the media. The complexity of such a negotiation is a clear indicator of a critical change, far more visible in the last few years, of the relationship between science and society.

The first reaction of the scientific community to the crisis was to improve its means of communication with the general public. This led to the idea that if only citizens had better scientific knowledge, scientists’ requests would be viewed more positively. “Public Understanding of Science” became an explicit objective for scientists and a label for a great number of initiatives such as exhibitions, articles, museums, books, public events and so on. It became the solving factor of the crisis, pointing out the so-called “deficit factor”, namely the fact that citizens lack an understanding of scientific knowledge, as the main cause of public controversies about science.

What was revealed to be wrong with this model was the idea that the communication between science and society is a one-way flow of information from science into society. This opinion was certainly based on a sound statistical fact: in almost all developed countries there is a considerable low level of scientific literacy. But the 2000 report “Science and Society” prepared by the House of Lords in Great Britain, undermined this model by pointing out that, despite the efforts made to improve scientific literacy in the UK through, for example, a special financial organization such as the CoPUS (Committee for the Public Understanding of Science), not only did the general public maintain a low level of scientific literacy, but also the hoped-for appreciation of science in some cases, paradoxically, converted into an aversion for research.

Other surveys followed, showing that there is no clear correlation between the level of scientific literacy and attitudes and opinions toward science. For instance, in the US there is a lower level of scientific literacy than in the EU but a more positive attitude towards science. These results tell us that no matter how methodologically sound and empirically supported a scientific fact is, several factors such as individual mental models, emotions, moral engagement, ethics, prior knowledge and value judgments supersede factual considerations in the forming of attitudes and opinions.

During the 60s,  70s and 80s philosophers, historians and sociologists of science showed this to be the case for scientists themselves when comparing rival theories and supporting alternative research programs. Therefore, we think we can successfully implement our descriptive models to the study of the same decision-making processes, adding society as a crucial factor. We have to reject the myth of the scientist as an autonomous scientific expert, located apart from history and social embodiment. Science is sociologically laden in that every scientific application is made within a socially organized context. Science and society are not separable. This is straightforward since science is a social activity within an institutionalized framework and it is guided by social norms and practices. Sociological factors drive scientists’ decision-making processes at all levels. On the one hand there are the social dynamics within the scientific community itself, such as competition and agreement among research groups, among individual researchers as well as within the same research group. On the other hand there are external political and economical pressures on the scientific community, which in turn are driven by public opinion.

What has been discussed so far brings us to the necessity of democratising the decision-making process in science and technology policy. Simply put, choices and opinions cannot be imposed in a democratic society. Negotiation is crucial and its complexity has to be accepted and studied in depth in order to promote a more positive attitude of citizens towards research. Consequently, we consider a construction of empirical models essential in order to be able to outline the factors and dynamics involved in the relationship between science and society. This will enable us to delineate effective prescriptions for the improvement of such a relationship through a society-sensible democratisation of research policies.

In carrying out this project, we intend to take advantage of the longstanding scientific relationships that our department has established with several scholars working in different countries. Such scholars have been working in the fields of history and philosophy of science in their respective countries. Their contribution to the understanding of the relationship between science and society has, therefore, produced different theoretical and empirical models of the way in which science interacts with society in various national realities. They are willing to come to the University of Catania to give lectures and seminars in order to communicate the results of their research and we think that their expertise will be valuable for us, especially in those parts of the project in which we direct our efforts toward the understanding of the correlation between national and international research policies in the globalised economy of the XXI century.

As pointed out before, existing models of theory choice address those factors forming the matrix of decision-making processes in science. We want to implement these models by introducing public institutions and society as additional variables. Our purpose is thereby to achieve a clearer understanding of the relationship between science and society at an international level.

In fact, in this part of the project we will test our models on the work of scientific communities in different national realities in order to optimize our results. This is why we intend to invite scholars who come from different cultural backgrounds that reflect differences in national research policies. In some cases, they have already worked out descriptive models, testing them on specific social and scientific realities. Their activity, however, has rarely addressed the European Union as a single and homogeneous scientific environment. Now we want to coordinate their results by testing those models in the context of EU scientific and political institutions.

Among the scholars that are willing to cooperate with us there are leading American and Canadian scholars, such as Thomas Nickles of the University of Nevada, Reno (U.S.A.) and Sébastien Charles of the University of Sherbrooke, Canada. We think that their expertise would help to point out the differences between US, Canadian and EU research policies and especially the impact that science has in their respective social realities.

Another point worth stressing is the contribution that the new EU member states can give both to the management of scientific practices and to the building of a more inclusive European identity. To help us in studying this problem we have decided to invite a leading Polish scholar such as Andrzej Klawiter of the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. Other scholars who work all over Europe have shown willingness to cooperate with us in order to maximise the opportunities to achieve the intended results of the project. They are: Gereon W. Wolters who is Universitätsprofessor at the University of Konstanz, Germany; Eleonora Montuschi, who is Deputy Director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Ecomics and Political Science, London, Uk; Silvano Tagliagambe, who is Full Professor of philosophy of science at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Sassari, Italy; Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Philosophy and Ethics of Science at the University of Hannover, Germany, who has been deeply involved in the UNESCO/ICSU World Conference on Science (WCS) held in Budapest in 1999, writing a background paper jointly with others (see stressing the need to democratise the decision-making process in science and technology policy. We think that by coordinating the results of our research team with those of the above-mentioned scholars and by promoting the networking of their respective research institutions we can achieve effective results both in gaining further knowledge on issues related to the relationship between science and society and in advancing concrete proposals to convert the knowledge acquired into sound social policies.

We think that by coordinating the results of our research team with those of the mentioned scholars and by promoting the networking of their respective research institutions we can achieve effective results both in gaining further knowledge on issues related to the relationship between science and society and in advancing concrete proposals to convert the knowledge acquired into sound social policies.


Monitoring Ideas Regarding Research Organizations and Reasons in Science