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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Mastering complexity

I have just returned from an interesting few days at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, where my main message was that science needs to be far higher up the political and business agenda than it is today. This is only the second year I’ve participated, but I have the impression that this message is being heard: one of the things I raised this year is the importance of linking the scientific content of the meeting more closely with the political thread, and I’ll be taking that forward with the Forum before next year’s Davos meeting.

Science is complex. There’s no getting around that. But it’s essential that everyone engage constructively with it. That’s particularly true of the political and business leaders in Davos, whose decisions on science-based subjects can influence everything from the well being of our children to the future of the planet. It’s vital that those decisions are taken from an informed position and on rational grounds.

The challenge that science faces is that we live in a world where it’s de rigueur to know your Shakespeare, Molière or Goethe, but quite all right to be proudly ignorant of Faraday, Pasteur or Einstein. It hasn’t always been that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way. But right now, there’s a trend in society towards scientific apathy, and even antagonism. This is dangerous for us all and it’s incumbent on the scientific community to address the issue.

There was a time not so long ago when science was a fully integrated part of society, discussed in the same breath as football matches and front-page news. In the early part of the 20th century, news of Einstein’s advances were accompanied by cartoons in the press, and as recently as the 1960s science grabbed the popular imagination, thanks largely to NASA’s Apollo programme. But the moon shots bucked a trend of increasing distance between science and society, which is leaving society ill equipped to make the science-based decisions it needs to make.

Among the biggest challenges to society today are climate change and energy. Both are highly complex political and scientific issues. The climate is changing. There’s no doubt about that, and it is equally incontrovertible that human activity has something to do with it. Yet in the public sphere, the debate still rages on. Similarly, it’s a simple fact that renewable energy does not currently have the capacity to supply the increasing demands of the world.  That’s not to say that renewables do not have a place. Of course they do, and that place will grow with time. But the current timescale for delivery is longer than that for demand. Is society equipped to make the difficult decisions that need to be made on issues of global importance such as this? In my opinion, we’re far from it.

On the personal level, there’s a range of issues that leave people confused and forced to take ill-informed decisions that can literally have life-or-death consequences. Take mad cow disease, scares over the MMR vaccine, and the safety of mobile phones, for example.

Of course, at CERN, we’ve had our own experience of this phenomenon. When starting up the LHC in 2008, the world was in the grip of black hole fever. According to a small handful of people, our flagship accelerator would create a black hole that would devour the Earth. The idea went viral on social media, and was also widely reported in the mainstream media, many of which conveniently left the normal journalistic code of ethics to one side as they explored the comic possibilities of the story. Unfortunately, science has left society alone for too long, and many people were unable to see the funny side. There were even stories of schools being closed for the day to allow children to be with their parents, just in case. And all this was based largely on the testimony of a man who, when asked about his concerns on television, explained that the LHC would either destroy the Universe or it would not, therefore the probability for disaster was one in two.  If this were not so tragic, it would be laughable.

What can science do about it? In my opinion, a great deal.  At the institutional level, things are changing.  The recently created Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University includes science as an obligatory part of its course on public policy, to cite just one example. We need to use exciting science projects like the LHC to engage people with science, not just through the science pages, but also in new ways such as the arts residency programme we recently launched at CERN. And scientists in positions of influence need to use that influence to shape political debate in the world’s Capitals and in places like Davos.

Broad engagement has been our approach at CERN for a number of years, seizing the opportunity offered by the visibility of the LHC to engage more fully with everyone from decision makers to our neighbours and the general public. As a result we’re seeing our science being covered responsibly, and once again we’re seeing people talking about it along with football and front-page news. Sometimes the stories are not exactly what we’d like to see, but what’s important is that people are talking about science.

When the LHC started up, and the world continued to exist, at least one newspaper boldly declared that the LHC would be the new Apollo, set to engage a whole generation with science. While I take such headlines with a healthy pinch of salt, they do make good reading. More recently, another newspaper declared that physics has the X-factor, that elusive quality that makes it part of the zeitgeist.

Science as a whole needs to capitalise on this, to ensure that the LHC is not science’s one-hit-wonder, and that engagement with society is sustained. As scientists, we owe the world this, helping people to master the complexity of their own science-based lives. Twelve months from now, I’ll be taking this message back to Davos.

Rolf Heuer