There is a real risk that science might be seen as a luxury as governments look to make savings. But science is a necessity, not a luxury. The world is facing large-scale challenges such as climate change, food and energy security, and demographic shifts. Informed decisions on these issues require the best evidence-based knowledge and advice that we can produce.
Scientists and policymakers speaking in Dublin on the opening day of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 have warned that society must view research as a necessity rather than as a luxury. The panel of experts used Ireland as a case study to emphasise the importance of maintaining investment in research and development, and stressed the need to encourage future generations of scientists regardless of the challenges posed by the current economic climate.
The ceremony was compèred by comedian and science enthusiast Dara Ó Briain, and included contributions from the President of the Republic of Ireland Michael D Higgins, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland Professor Patrick Cunningham, President of Euroscience Professor Enric Banda, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, and Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton. Successive speakers reiterated the need to avoid shortsightedness, and to recognise science as an essential constituent of our present and of our future.
"As a nation, we must have confidence and continue to remember our proven aptitude for physics, for chemistry, for technological development, our great ability to push the boundaries outwards, our restless creative energy and curiosity that translates to a constant exploration of how things work and how they can be done better, more effectively, more efficiently," argued President Higgins. "Above all else, with more general ability, the moral challenge is ever greater now. Science has to be delivered in a world that carries scars of policies that saw the relationship of states and people – our greatest resources – as an exploitative one."
Professor Cunningham conceded that Ireland had faced its fair share of challenges, but pointed out that sustained investment has allowed his country to punch above its weight in terms of research and innovation.
"Ireland, let me remind you, is about one per cent of the economic weight of the European Union, so we’re very small and to some extent we’re marginal," he explained. "Those of you who have taken long flights to get here will realise that we have come through troubled histories – like almost every country in Europe – yet in recent years, we have to some extent found our measure as we have grappled with the challenge of building what’s now known as the knowledge society."
Professor Cunningham was equally optimistic about Europe’s future, and suggested that a golden age of continental cohesion could be upon us.
"[I think that] what we’re witnessing here is the first successful decade of something that in a hundred years’ time, will be written about as an important turning point in, not just the history of science, but in the history of European cohesion, cooperation, sense of common purpose, and the use of science for society."
Following on from Professor Cunningham, Professor Banda called for policymakers across Europe to avoid the pitfalls of austerity and continue to invest in and support science.
"From politicians, what do we expect?" he asked. "We expect them to understand that austerity does not mean cutting the essentials, and research is essential for our future. Please preserve the essential for the benefit of future generations and let solid results from science [act as the] inspiration and a basis for your policies."
Throughout the opening ceremony, references were made to CERN’s recent announcement that a particle consistent with the Higgs boson had been observed at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, as Commissioner Quinn explained, high profile success stories can benefit science by raising its profile, but budgetary constraints can just as easily undo this hard work.
"I couldn’t be more pleased that science and research are at the top of the agenda," she commented. "I say this not just as the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, but as someone who is utterly convinced that we need more science and better science to improve our wellbeing, our environment and our economy. Budgets are very tight in Europe, but it is clear to me, and indeed to my colleagues in the European Commission, that a bigger share of those scarce resources must be devoted to research, science and innovation.
"However, not everyone understands this, and we are facing a battle to maintain the central role of science in European society. There is a real risk that science might be seen as a luxury as governments look to make savings. But science is a necessity, not a luxury. The world is facing large-scale challenges such as climate change, food and energy security, and demographic shifts. Informed decisions on these issues require the best evidence-based knowledge and advice that we can produce. Cutting budgets now would also be a false economy because science is one of the keys to our recovery. In Europe, those countries who have invested in research are weathering the crisis much better. Innovative companies are more resilient, continuing to attract customers with the best products and services. Investment in science is investment in competitiveness and jobs."
Minister Bruton closed the ceremony by looking to the future. Whilst he admitted that priorities might have been skewed in the past, he emphasised that much was being done to exploit the potential of science in the future.
"[Ireland] suffered a property crash in recent times, and the damage wasn’t just to the banks and to the estates that weren’t built," he explained. "It also damaged the sorts of choices that people made about their careers, and perhaps we lost sight of the importance of science and technology. Now, that is being restored and there is an understanding that this is the route for small, open economies that want to trade globally. [They] must invest in science, maths and engineering, and encourage people to go down that road."
It seems that Ireland is an ideal host nation for ESOF 2012. In many ways, the country’s recent history can be seen as an allegory for Europe’s own struggles. Indeed, many figures within the European scientific community share its ambitions for the future.