We Are ETH-Podcast: Philippe Kahn

Translating research results for society requires resources. Either we pay someone to make it work - or we pay as a society if it turns out not to work.

After several years of hard development work and science journalism at the highest level, higgs.ch is closing down due to financial reasons. Donations, foundations and income from subscriptions have not been enough to cover the costs involved. And the universities, the tens of thousands of researchers and the hundreds of thousands of students who have enjoyed a university education? They are silent.

Strategies lie mouldering in drawers. Foundations pull out. Educational institutions are unwilling to spend even a fraction of the billions of taxpayer’s money to make the results of the research available to the Swiss population in the form of a knowledge portal.

The question of funding

The reasons are many. Foundations provide start-up financing and then withdraw. In general, they are cautious and want to avoid their projects being interpreted as (too) political. However, in other countries this works well: the European Climate Foundation1 is explicitly committed to a net-zero CO2 target and supports the Carbonbrief2 platform, which provides climate knowledge for the media and other interested parties.

Direct sponsorship of the media by the research community - or by private individuals or foundations - is problematic due to conflicts of interest. Universities cannot put taxpayers- money directly into private media companies. The independence of the media must be guaranteed. However, such structural issues are by no means impossible to resolve; for example, via a foundation in which a separate body decides on the funding of projects or channels. And last but not least, strong institutions and individuals with a -not-invented-here- approach are likely to value external work less and prefer to launch something themselves in order to retain power in terms of interpretation and control - and all of this in the knowledge that it will take valuable years to build something new.

Keeping track is difficult

But back to the basics: why do we need science journalism? Why is it so difficult, and what happens if we don’t have it any more? The world is complex, the challenges are diverse and developments in technology and big data are rapid. Energy transition, biodiversity, social media, privacy, climate crisis, personalised medicine: no one can follow it all. The need for classifying it in an understandable way, for synthesis and for context is great. Trust in science is fundamentally intact, and even increased during the pandemic.

Science journalism can do all that, but it-s time-consuming and expensive. The media is under pressure; many people no longer read much. What counts is -engagement- - i.e. clicks. At the same time, fake news is spreading more easily and faster than ever before on social media. This provides a breeding ground for an increasingly polarised social and political discourse. What matters is a person’s world view, rather than whether a statement is factually correct. Donald Trump demonstrated this to perfection: when it comes to faith and ideology, a perceived truth is enough, even if it is based on lies. All you have to do is repeat it often and loudly enough to discredit your opponents.

Sound knowledge for sound decisions

But does an understanding of facts help with these problems? Obviously, neither science as a discipline nor individual representatives can determine policy. Facts and figures do not necessarily lead to decisions. But facts form the basis of an informed debate. Researchers can calculate scenarios, evaluate costs and risks, highlight connections and propose solutions. This can give rise to conflicting priorities for all involved - here, Covid-19 has a lot in common with the climate crisis (see blog post ).

The discourse is sometimes exhausting, but must be endured. In a democracy, it’s essential that politicians and the public understand the basics in order to make informed decisions. And in Switzerland, where the people have the final say, this is particularly important.

This is precisely where good science journalism makes an important contribution: it provides a basic understanding of how new knowledge is created, what holds our world together, how nature, technology and society function and interact. It helps us to interpret statistics and diagrams, question assertions and argue objectively. And in its function as the -Fourth Estate- in relation to science, it provides a critical backdrop and contextualises.

A society that doesn-t read, doesn-t understand, is unable to engage in critical discourse or is too easily deceived will make short-sighted decisions. In the long run, this is dangerous. In view of everything that is at stake, a strong scientific voice should be something that is important to us.

This article by Reto Knutti was first published in the -Klartext- column on higgs.ch.

References

1 European Climate Foundation

2 Carbonbrief platform

Reto Knutti

Professor of Klimaphysics at ETH Zurich

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