Democracy sheds its skin. It’s growing and needs a new shell. Civil society is on the rise and imposes the question, how science deals with citizens. Until recently, they were excluded from the scientific process. Now, the electorate, tax payers and consumers make their voices heard in research and technology related questions. In order to promote inclusion, the German Association of Science Writers TELI has launched a science debate for the General Elections in September 2013. Pseudo-debates, very common until now, will be replaced by participative debates. A model for the European Parliamentary Elections 2014?
Key words: civil society, participation, inclusion, democracy, scientific citizenship, society in science
Germany is getting ready for the general election in September 2013. The citizenry will vote for federal representatives in the Berlin parliament and a chancellor. While the candidates are getting into position and shape their political profile, the German Association of Science Writers TELI is trying out a new tool and method in science journalism. It has launched the German Science Debate 2013, an online platform, which attempts to bridge science, politics, and civil society. It was born out of the firm belief that scientific endeavors must not only leave the ivory tower and become visible on the market place, but shall also be submitted to discussion and dialogue, input and approval, if they want to become legitimate in a truly democratic society. This article looks into the history of citizen participation in science, introduces the German Science Debate in the European and worldwide context, examines the tools employed, the philosophy behind it, weighs the arguments for and against such a platform and assesses the perspectives.
Founded in 1929, the German TELI is the worldwide oldest association of technical and scientific journalists. It has been guided by the best intentions, which for the beginning of the 20th century were very visionary views that journalists had to bridge the gap between research and society. However, when 1933 came around, TELI officials surrendered within months to the Nazis and became a loyal propaganda instrument of the regime and the war, welcoming new weapons of mass destruction and technologies to promote the ideology. In comparison, other journalists and scientific organizations took years, sometimes until the end of the war in their struggle to stay independent. Some very few even managed to maintain their integrity.
After 1945, the questionable journalistic ethics and the guilt question were not pursued, as in most parts of the German postwar society. As the cold war rapidly progressed and the country became divided, the TELI split also into two sections, catering to the respective societies. After Germany’s reunification in 1990, TELI rejoined and after the turn of the century examined its common heritage and failings in the period from 1933 to 1945. It became the first journalistic organization, which recorded its Nazi history and went public with it, presenting it at a number of international conferences. While a critical assessment of the TELI period from 1945 to 1989 in the German Federal Republic (BRD) and, above all, in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) is still missing, the reunified TELI is dedicated to take the commitment of its founding fathers serious and work on the dissemination of knowledge and also enlighten the citizenry on the sunny as well as the shady and dark parts of science and technology.
Thus, during the past ten years the relationship between “society and science” has increasingly moved into the focus of the journalistic association. This term basically calls for a close co-operation between researchers and citizens, with a mutual benefit: Scientific results and its technological implementations are enhanced by trustworthy relationships with the citizens. Distrust and fear leads to derailments and put science on a bumpy path, with disadvantages for both, scientists and society. It is TELI’s firm belief that this new partnership requires also practical means.
As a result of this, TELI kicked off before the last federal elections the German Science Debate 2009. It was prompted by the US Science Debate, which had been invented a few months before by the journalist and filmmaker Shawn Otto during the 2008 election in the United States. The US debate was based on questionnaires, circulated among key people of the scientific establishment, expressing their concerns about research, its shortcomings and priorities. That part was very successful, thousands of prominent people participated, the candidates Barack Obama and John McCain responded. However the main goal was not reached, neither in the 2008 nor in the 2012 campaign. That called for a face-to-face debate on scientific issues between the presidential candidates with the aim to underline science’s significance as the motor of modern societies and how our common future depends on responsible science.
The German Science Debate 2009 principally followed this lead. It involved the leaders of major scientific organizations in the country, individual scientists, politicians and parts of the civil society. The German Debate culminated before the election with a widely distributed press release, expressing the concern that science was hardly mentioned in the campaign at all, especially by the candidates for the chancellor’s office. Nevertheless, the debate was considered a success, also measured in terms of media coverage and response.
One year later, the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA presented science debates at the ESOF 2010 conference in Turin as a newly emerging method of the profession. Since then, various European countries, including Italy and Estonia, have experimented with it. Meanwhile TELI under the leadership of its chairman Hanns-J.Neubert decided to redesign and sharpen this tool for the 2013 election campaign and to adjust it more properly to German scientific and political culture.
Although created for the election, the platform is supposed to be a permanent one. As of now, it consists of five major themes: energy, demography and old age, health and nutrition, the scientific system and science journalism. Debate moderators feed these topics regularly with new articles highlighting current and controversial developments in the respective fields, for example:
The moderators acquire opinions, which they disperse, recollect, summarize and feed the media with them. In the second stage of this process, face-to-face meetings of scientists, citizens and politicians are planned to further discuss the issues. As Neubert points out in the project description, these meetings could take place in theaters, cinemas, pubs, stadiums, churches, also to publicly demonstrate that society is an integrated and integrative element in the scientific process. Even poetry slams or artistic performances are in the range of conceivable forums in order to address as many people as possible, preferably from highly diverse social settings to ensure a perfect mix and inclusion.
Debating about not only politics, but also research, science and technology is something new and at this stage alien to many people. Therefore, the method itself will be subject to democratic debate and discussion, in the course of which it may reveal strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities. This in-built quality control is a very important step to make this innovation more resilient. The organizers are very much aware of the necessity of this scrutiny. Pro-actively, they make efforts to enhance this process, receive colleague’s feedback and implant valuable ideas.
At the end of November 2012, the science debate was presented at the German “Wissenswerte” (“Worth to Know”) in Bremen. Once a year, science journalists from all over the country hold their annual reunion in this city, taking a critical look at the state of the art of their profession. This time, the science debate had received a favorable slot right at the beginning of the three day conference. Although this session had to compete with attractive other events, it filled a room with a curious crowd. Other than other conference workshops, this one was deliberately not top-down, a panel of experts speaking to the audience with questions and answers at the end. After an introduction, a professional moderator and dialogue expert took the floor and divided the participants into small groups. They reviewed, debated and digested the concepts and came up with additional reflections which will be incorporated into the scheme.
Some of the impulses and questions worthwhile to think about are: Can basic research also be submitted to debate and societal input? How to recruit high potential participants, should they be specially selected, and if yes with which set of rules? After the concept had been perceived by some participants somehow patchy and foggy, how can it be designed, worded and implemented in a way that it reaches the population? Above all, what is the unique selling point for an individual citizen, in other words: Why should she or he care?
Other issues, which were not raised by the Bremen audience, need to be addressed as well. For instance, exchange and debate have become very popular in the past couple of years, not only throughout Germany, but all over Europe, even starting now in Latin America. Politics and especially science gradually open to the fact that democratic societies need also a broad based communication about their scientific and technological strivings. After all, it was the director of the prestigious German Museum in Munich (“Deutsches Museum”), Wolfgang Heckl, who demanded already years ago: “We need a lively debate on nano technology and have to take the anxiety of the population very seriously, if we want to avoid it becoming a major apple of discord, such as nuclear energy.”
Even before the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, nuclear plants have been fiercely debated by the German public. Other developments such as construction plans for a huge underground railroad station in Stuttgart (“Stuttgart 21”) without consulting with the public attributed to even more concern and rage about technological developments.
When the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, the conservatives lost the election in the state of Baden-Württemberg. The head of the party and chancellor, Angela Merkel, decided to pull the plug and to phase out nuclear energy and replace it with renewable energy, which has become a globally closely monitored experiment of a major industrial nation. So, for decades and since well before reunification, many debates have rocked Germany, which mostly were imposed on the political system by the population. The green movement, by now a worldwide environmental and economic force, has been around since the 1970’s, when some German dissidents decided that science and technology did not serve the needs of the people.
Thus, an independent observer might come to the conclusion, that scientific citizenship and participation in relation to science and technology have come a long way in Germany. However, if such findings are put under a magnifying glass, little evidence is found. This at least maintains Hanns-J. Neubert, who introduced at ESOF 2010 Turin two distinct categories of participation: “start of pipe” and “end of pipe” debates. The latter ones are the most common ones, run by officials of various authorities, who have to comply with laws and regulations, and start the dialogue at the end of the decision making process. Thus, citizen participation is abused, because it provides only a rubber stamp for what experts have already determined. These are “pseudo-debates”, as Neubert criticizes in the final project description of the German Science Debate.
To summarize, there are many initiatives already, with a long tradition, more recently with many new one springing up, ranging from regional levels to nationwide, such as the government-driven Science in Dialogue (“Wissenschaft im Dialog”). Furthermore, debates reach out all the way to the top on the European level. The European Union has opened a variety of discussion and debate platforms about scientific and technological subjects. They are meant to encourage researchers to consult with the bodies of the civil society and Non-Government Organizations NGOs to ensure smooth sailing for scientific investigations and vice-versa encourage the public to get engaged. On the negative side, many of these debates are top-down, basically partial and not really independent, grassroots-driven.
Bottom- up from the roots of society, this is what the TELI initiative stands for. Because it aims at citizens’ participation from the beginning on, many established organizations in science and politics will look at it like unwanted competition, perhaps even unprofessional from the scientific view. But even science has to submit to the general rules. The conflict of competing opinions and designs has been widely acknowledged as the driving force of history, progress and evolution.
Opposition is an elementary part of change and democratic development. The following question is a very legitimate one and must be answered in the course of the Science Debate: How much participation can a society tolerate and bear?
Obviously, our societal systems have become highly complex, so that we need to delegate control. Moreover, many scientists will argue that they are afraid of a loss of freedom, if they are submitted to constraints, which some might call “public control”. Ideally, people perform best in systems with a maximum of freedom. But it has been the achievement of the age of enlightenment, which not only gave birth to modern science, but also modern democracies: Checks and balances, along with transparency and accountability control power systems and regulate them. The conflict of interest between those in power and their clients always needs to be negotiated and re-negotiated, on all levels at any time. This is what the German Science Debate is all about.
Journalists are traditionally considered the mediators within a society, the fourth power among legislators, the executive branch and judiciary. They facilitate dialogues between citizens and politicians. So it seems evident that science journalists would try to include researchers in this process. This approach could create a new type of science journalism, update the profession and make it fit the 21st century: Debate-Driven Science Journalism, as it is being introduced at the World Conference of Science Journalists in June 2013 in Finland’s capital Helsinki.
The German Science Debate is a social experiment dealing with the essence of all science. This will most likely polarize the research community and make part of it defensive, a natural reaction which most innovations are confronted with, because they change the status quo. A firm foundation for the science debate has already been built during the past 40 years, so now the house needs to be constructed. Scientists, whether they are natural or social scientists, have already accepted the necessity to collaborate more closely with society. Almost four years ago, Hans-Joerg Bullinger, the president of the prestigious Fraunhofer Society at that time, inaugurated the German Science Debate 2009 with three remarkable sentences:
“We need a broad societal debate on how we want to shape the future. People need answers on questions of our time. We can only utilize the chances which research and technology offer us, if people are going along.”
The renowned French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour condensed this to one blunt and challenging sentence: “No innovation without representation.”
Wolfgang C(hristian) Goede has been a science journalist for over 30 years, more than 25 with Germany’s leading popular science magazine P.M. He has a master’s degree in political science and communication science from the University of Munich (LMU). He is a board member of the German Association of Science Writers (TELI), Honorary Secretary of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA), a member of the International Science Writers Association (ISWA) and co-founder of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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