Science & Tech

Advice for scientists: ‘Be vocal’

7 min read

In campus visit, EU official talks ‘post-truth’ worries, policy, and digital realities

U.S. scientists are bracing for a difficult time ahead, with an administration hostile to climate change science, dubious about environmental regulation, and seeking to dramatically slash some areas of the federal budget. 

They’re not alone, according to Carlos Moedas, the European Union’s commissioner for research, science, and innovation. Moedas, who visited campus this week, said scientists around the world are grappling with increased public skepticism, in part from the deluge of information — both accurate and inaccurate — we take in daily.  

During his stay, Moedas spoke to students and delivered a public lecture, “Good Science for Good Politics,” in which he discussed an initiative to weave scientific advice into the work of the European Commission, which serves as the EU’s executive arm. The talk was organized by the Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society and co-sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  

Moedas also took time to sit down with the Gazette to discuss science in the post-truth age, the needs of policymakers, and the promise of digital technology in industry.

GAZETTE: You’re here to talk about science and politics. How interconnected are those two subjects in the world today?

MOEDAS: We live at a very difficult moment where people don’t believe anymore in facts and science. So it’s very important for a politician to be preaching the importance of scientific advice and the importance of evidence for policymaking. Somehow those two worlds got disconnected. You have to connect [them] back because if you want to do good policymaking, if you want to make good decisions, [they] have to be based on evidence, based on facts.

GAZETTE: I’ve always thought of the idea of being in a “post-truth” era as being an American election construct. Is truth under attack as well in Europe?

MOEDAS: I think it’s under attack everywhere in the world. The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen “post-truth” as the word for 2016. That’s something that scares me very much. So it’s a global phenomenon. People in the digital world are bombarded by information. People want it to be reliable and they want to trust it, but they don’t know where to go. We are all a bit lost in a world of information. It’s our responsibility to create hubs of trust, where people know where that independent information and independent facts are and where the truth is. More than ever, you need science to be the base of the decisions of politicians. That’s what we’re working on these days.

GAZETTE: What do scientists not know about politics that they should?

MOEDAS: That politics are not a rational process, because there are emotions [involved]. Scientists have to know where their limits are, and that they should not [become] issue advocates. They should be honest brokers of information and they should be the ones who give options to politicians. It’s very important to have scientists give a broad group of options that politicians then can choose [from, rather] than have scientists come to politicians to tell them that they should [do] this … and that they have no options. I think you always have options.

GAZETTE: What about issues like climate change — not just important on a global scale, but also pressing? You have an administration here in the U.S. that has indicated that it doesn’t want to make any movement on climate change. Consequently you have a March for Science planned for Washington this weekend. That seems to go against the honest broker paradigm that you outlined.

MOEDAS: Look, I think that we live in a difficult moment worldwide. My role as a European politician is to create in Europe an environment where people believe in science, where science is valued, and where we have a system that is based on openness for science. We created this idea that our motto, or our vision, will be open innovation, open science, and openness to the world. That kind of became a political statement, but it was not a political statement to begin with.

I’m a big believer that you can create more wealth and more jobs … when you attract talent from all over the world. … So I’m on the side of those who believe in openness. Science has been open for centuries. When Einstein wrote the general relativity paper, he was alone in his journey. Last year when [scientists] confirmed that gravitational waves were basically the proof that Einstein was right, that was a paper with 1,000 authors from all over the world.

Today it’s impossible to do science in your own corner, in your own university, wherever you are. Harvard is one of the best in the world, but what I see here at the Kennedy School is a group of people from all over the world.

GAZETTE: Is there a feeling among the European science community that over the next four years, possibly eight, they may need to push a little harder to lead the world on an issue like climate? Is there a feeling that American scientists may be having other problems — funding problems — to worry about?

MOEDAS: We have an opportunity in Europe to be leaders in climate change actions and in everything related to the environment. If you [ask] me about European identity, what actually links all Europeans — very few things. We speak different languages and we are different countries and different people. But there’s one thing that links everybody. It’s that people are genuinely worried about the environment — in the street; it’s not just the specialists.

For us it’s very important to keep the leadership in everything related to renewables, to storage of energy to … efficiency. We have the buy-in of the citizens and that’s fantastic. We hope that other countries follow. We have a very strong relationship with the United States, a relationship of scientists. [Scientists] come from Europe to the United States but also from the United States to Europe. I want that relationship to be alive, kicking.

We are firm believers in Europe that we have to work quickly in terms of climate. That’s why we were so engaged in COP 21. So I hope that, of course, people in the United States help us on that.

GAZETTE: What area of science do you feel has the most potential to transform people’s lives over the next 10 years?

MOEDAS: What excites me the most is not an area of science, but this merger that you see between the physical world and the digital world. You have areas like food and energy, health and water, that will dramatically change from these mergers between the physical world and the digital world. We have to be very, very clear about the fact that for the future, everything related to research and innovation has a digital side to it.

GAZETTE: Do you have a message for American scientists looking ahead to the future?

MOEDAS: I don’t have a particular message to the American scientists. I have a message for all scientists. It’s they have to be more vocal about what they do. They have to fight harder, because I think times will be difficult for all of us in all parts of the world. Of course you see it in an American perspective. I see it in a European perspective. We’re having an election in France that will be very difficult this Sunday. We will have elections in other countries in Europe, we have fringes in society that don’t believe anymore in science, so scientists have to be more vocal than they were in the past. I think the March for Science is an excellent idea. I’ll be marching in Lisbon with the Portuguese scientists. It has to be a positive march. It’s a march about the fact that you need science to make decisions, you need science to create jobs, and you need science to fill people with the sense of purpose in life too. So my message is: Be vocal. Talk about it, tell your story. Politicians alone cannot help you.

Interview was edited for length and clarity.