Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sequestration cuts in Europe?

Nobel Prize and awardees and Fields Medalists launch campaing against EU research austerity 

On October 23 a petition has been addressed by Nobel Prize awardees and Fields medalists to the representatives of European governments, the object: the rumors that research funds will be cut on occasion of the next meeting to discuss the European budget.
The sword of Damocles that is threatening the European funds for scientific research is, at a closer look, an extremely dangerous risk for the future of all European citizens, not only scientists. 
The current well-being of most of us Westerners is based on easily identifiable pillars: scientific studies, at first abstract and then applied, that brought us electricity and computers, just to quote a couple of examples. There would not be anything of all that we are used to if some ancestor of ours had not been so curious to think about the why and how of natural phenomena, which sometimes have weird names such as “quantum field theory”.
The example that I personally like to quote most often, given that I am both an Italian and a physicist, is related to CERN and its accelerator LHC, now operating underground in the Geneva area: the acronym designating this experiment stands for Large Hadron Collider, which, in plain language, corresponds to a sort of dodgem whose cars are minuscule particles, which belong to the category of hadrons ... hadrons as in “hadron-therapy”, a technique of modern medicine that is used to cure deep cancers in a unique way. How else could humanity have discovered the existence and behavior of the subatomic world other than walking down the path that has brought to build the LHC in order to discover and study the Higgs Boson?
This link is just one example of a connection between fundamental science and well-being that is obscure to most people. It is then apparent how the issue of an accurate positioning of research in European funding policies represents, in reality, a much wider problem, which requires a unity of intents that goes far beyond academia and laboratories: it concerns all of us together with our kids.
In such a context the voice that reaches the ears of our political representatives should be a single powerful one that collects many more people than just the scientists. The latter should lead these unitary efforts: in fact, in order to have a weight in society, before politics, lobbying is needed.
This goal can only be achieved if the general public is involved in the process and engaged in a two-way conversation; how does one go about conquering support from the public? by speaking its own language, studying its interests, meeting it where it is to be found, which most certainly is not at the entry to the Ivory Tower. 
A marketing strategy is needed; that's right: marketing, as in advertising campaigns; in fact, where else is the success of advertisement if not in its ability to sympathize with the public, to be in its shoes, to touch its emotional cords, one category at a time? 
The time is over, then, to simply rely on press releases in order to reach the public: communication has its own tools, science is the product to be advertised, in a proper way of course. In such a context it is not an heresy to bother mixing scientific content with languages that are either non-scientific or non-verbal even: theatre and dance, for example, or video-games or comics ... 
This list could go on and would cite many efforts that either have been just proposed or are already being implemented. What is still missing, which I personally believe would represent a qualitative leap, is the unity of intents: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes. There is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I am advocating for here: the history of Hubble Space Telescope. In 2009 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O'Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. The scientific community succeeded in exciting such an emotion in common people that the two lobbied against the official decision, pushing Bush and O'Keefe to change their minds ... incredible! But true and repeatable.
Today's situation, worsened by the economic and financial crisis, represents both a test bench and a turning point: if the lack of awareness and the poor appreciation of science by the public are not confronted vigorously, no petition will ever suffice.

In conclusion, putting forth a petition is very welcome, in that it asks the public to express its support; however in order for the public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation.
My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”: it is available at, I hope you will find it interesting.

Umberto Cannella

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