Catalytic Converter

Is there anyone in Brussels with a more daunting portfolio of responsibilities than Rainer Gerold? As director of DG Research's Science and Society Directorate, he and his colleagues must engage the public in dialogue about scientific issues; ensure that trainee scientists pay attention to ethical issues and get training in nonresearch skills; reverse the tide of young people ebbing away from careers in science; and work to solve the perennial problem of providing women scientists with equal opportunities to their male colleagues.

Just as well, then, that Gerold is a man with a plan. A 38-point Action Plan, to be precise. Adopted at the end of last year, the plan is part of the Commission's effort to build a European Research Area, a task in which, Gerold tells Next Wave, "we rely very much on the young generation, because for them Europe is their home." In fact, Gerold is counting on help from a lot of different quarters to realise the goal of creating more harmonious relations among science and society. The trick, he says, is to focus on those areas "for which European initiatives are the most appropriate," and to persuade Member States to play their part at a national level. "The hope always is that ? you catalyse a reaction," says Gerold's assistant, former chemist Bernd Reichert.

One issue on which EC catalysis is helping European countries to pull together is that of women in science. Earlier this year the Helsinki Group, which is made up of civil servants from 30 European countries, published a report on the current situation of women in academic science in those countries. Its merit, says Gerold, is that for the first time there is "real, reliable, comparable data," so that discussions can be based on "more than just a feeling or an impression." He is also pleased that all the candidate countries were included. "This initiative has encountered a very great interest among women scientists" in those countries, he says.

Action 26

A group of experts will examine the situation facing women scientists in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, and make recommendations for further work, in particular through the Helsinki Group on women and science and links with other appropriate policies.

The Helsinki Group report may have brought the statistics together in one place for the first time, but the status of women academic scientists has been on the radar screen for quite a while. In another area highlighted in the Action Plan, however, "we were the first to really take a major initiative," claims Gerold. That area is industry. A report looking at the situation of women researchers in the private sector is due to be presented to Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin on 4 December. Although Gerold is unable to discuss the report's findings prior to this date, he did say that there had been "a very active interest" in the project "from big companies, but also from small companies." Moreover, just as many men as women have taken part, which, says Gerold, is crucial. "As long as you don't succeed in convincing men that this is an important issue which is also in their interests, you will not really have succeeded," he points out.

Action 24

A European platform will be set up to bring together networks of women scientists and organisations committed to gender equality in scientific research.

Gerold can clearly see the EC's catalytic role at work here. "We put this on the agenda," and because of the Commission's interest, national ministries and research organisations have sat up and taken notice, he says. And although the equality issue is an important one to address, Gerold believes that not everybody has yet grasped that there is even more at stake: "We simply need women, their brains, also in science," he asserts.

Action 18

The Commission will examine together with Member States the best way of launching a comparative European assessment of science and technology studies and careers, and of networking the national institutions that collect the necessary data.

Indeed Europe needs a lot of brains, of either gender, and the drop in the numbers of young people pursuing careers in science is troubling policy-makers at both the national and European level. Why does Gerold think that scientific careers are currently out of vogue? He points to three reasons. Firstly, science is perceived to be a difficult subject to study. Secondly "the image of a scientist is no longer what it used to be." And these two are linked to the third: "Very simply [young people] are not sure they earn more money ? for the additional effort they have to produce." He is critical of those in industry who complain that the public education system is not producing enough scientists. "They should also do their utmost to make science careers in industry more attractive, and this should be seen in the payroll," he suggests.

Gerold emphasises that the direct action that the Commission is able to take to change education and training policies at the school and university levels is limited, because these activities fall under the jurisdiction of individual Member States. Nonetheless, the Action Plan makes a strong call to train scientists in skills that go beyond their specialist expertise--skills that would enable them to place their work in a broader context.

Preamble to Action 13

In the training of scientists, particular attention must be given to areas that may prove essential in the exercise of their professions. These include project management (particularly on a European scale), law (intellectual property, ethics, etc,), and communication (to the general public in particular).

Just as the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development's recent PISA study provoked soul-searching in Gerold's native Germany, so he hopes that the Commission can "trigger" Member States, and even individual institutions, to improve the training of young scientists in areas such as soft skills and ethics by collecting and sharing best practices. The directorate has, for example, launched a study looking at existing training courses in ethics. While the Commission's benchmarking studies may not have as dramatic an impact as PISA, Gerold nonetheless thinks that publications of this kind "may have an effect," by showing universities and countries how they are falling short of what others are doing.

Action 31

Model courses and training modules will be developed in order to raise the awareness of researchers in the field of ethics.

There is, however, one mechanism that DG Research can use to exert more direct pressure on scientists themselves to consider issues of science and society; that is via the research projects that it funds. "We insist," says Gerold, that these projects "always include young researchers," who will receive 'on the job' research training. And under Framework Programme 6--and as enshrined in Action 10 of the plan--the leaders of EC-funded projects will be obliged to disseminate their work to the public. Although Gerold expects some initial resistance to this "additional burden," he nonetheless believes that "if you spend 10 million [Euro] on a scientific project" it is reasonable to expect the research team involved "to explain in simple terms what they are doing, how they are doing it, why they are doing it." Reichert speculates, though, that it will not actually be the leaders of the projects who do the dissemination work. Rather, based on his knowledge of the research environment, he thinks that "the young people will be charged [by their superiors] with doing these exercises." Gerold points out that in introducing this new requirement the Commission is only following in the footsteps of other funding bodies. Already, 1% of the European Space Agency's budget is dedicated to public understanding of science, whilst the Portuguese government reserves a whopping 5% of its research budget for such activities.

Action 10

The conditions for Community Research and Technological Development Projects will require partners to systematically disseminate to the public in various forms the scientific and technological progress achieved under the Framework Programme for Research: media coverage, exhibitions, products for education and teaching purposes, public debates, etc.

Looking at the budget an organisation devotes to something is one way of judging the importance placed on it. On this basis it would appear that science and society is rather low on the Commission's agenda. At ? 80 million its budget is less than 0.5% of the total for FP6. But, defends Gerold, "it would be wrong to have a huge budget here, because then you would create a kind of ghetto." Instead, all the different priority areas are expected to do their part in lowering barriers between science and society by ploughing their own means into initiatives such as public debates, Web sites, and so forth. And that's the way it should be--"integrated" into all research activity, he insists.

There is no doubt that the directorate has set itself an ambitious challenge. With the success of the Action Plan due to be assessed in 2004, it doesn't have much time to show that it can be a serious catalyst of change.

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