Morning symposium: who cares about science?
MAASTRICHT. Proposition: It is worth investing billions in the Einstein Telescope. A sea of green cards with ‘Yes’ shoots up, among them two red cards stating ‘No’. It is Monday, 2 September; the morning programme of the Opening of the Academic Year is at full blast. The theme is: ‘Who cares about society?’ or how do we bring science to the attention of a broad public.
“I have a medical background,” says one of the two ‘red card’ holders in the auditorium on the Minderbroedersberg. “There are too many social problems that are in dire need of being solved. That is where we need to invest.” The other 'no' voter, another woman by chance, adds: “Why waste money on a telescope when there are so many other problems: pollution, climate change, poverty. Let us first solve those.”
Professor Frank Linde, director of Nikhef, completely agrees with this proposition. This Monday morning, he is part of a panel that also includes the dean from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, professor Sophie Vanhoonacker, and the senior editor of the higher education website ScienceGuide, Sicco de Knecht, and just like the audience they are reacting to the propositions. The Netherlands needs hard-core science students, he argues. “If the Einstein Telescope doesn't come here (South Limburg is, together with Sardinia, still in the race for the immense underground laser, ed.), then the influx of students will drop. That will not be good for the knowledge development and the industry.” He points out to the 'no' voters that an X-ray, a PET scan en proton therapy would never have come about without research into elementary particles, for example.
Another proposition: research that results in applications should receive more funding than fundamental research. Discussion leader and assistant professor Gideon Koekoek from the Faculty of Science and Engineering, asks the audience to raise their cards. Red is predominant. “If you stop looking for answers to fundamental questions, science will run dry,” someone said. A couple of rows further along: “We need researchers who are allowed to play like babies. That yields discoveries that can results in valuable applications for society.” Dean and panel member Vanhoonacker emphasised that it is not wise to only look at the short term. “Applied research provides quick and definite results. But it is important not to forget the long-term approach.” She refers to the computer, which scientists were already working on decades ago. “Fundamental research takes time, sometimes it will be a century before it pays off.”
Last proposition: if the government funds research, then the public has a right to be informed about it. Again, a mass of green cards with ‘Yes’ are raised. But what can you do if people are not interested? How can we reach that group, discussion leader Koekoek wondered. In doing so, he makes a link with the second part of the morning: the student competition. Who can come up with the best way to bring research to the attention of the public with a budget of three thousand euro?
Of a total of nine submissions, three groups were allowed to briefly explain their plans. In addition to a pop-up store - with free coffee and a photography competition on the theme of science - in Banditos on the Grote Gracht (FASoS building), there was the idea to bring science to prisons. The university would then give prisoners upon their release the opportunity to make a new start. How? In the form of short lectures by researchers, but also by the exchange of books donated by students and the library. “An ambitious but also dangerous plan,” concluded the jury, headed by professor José Joordens. “But with the potential of being life-changing.”
Lastly, it was FLUI.GO’s turn. This group of students wants to break through “the invisible wall” that exists between children and science, by using a handbook for small experiments, Lego blocks and other instruments. Initial contact with schools has been made, they added enthusiastically. They received first prize (based on points from the audience and the jury) and are now able to implement their plan.