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The future of science

Global Forum in Rio brings together researchers from more than 100 countries to discuss topics such as science education, sustainable development and ethics

SANDRA FRIASThe challenges that governments and the scientific community will face in the coming years, such as strengthening science education, adopting policies to ensure ethics in research, and transforming knowledge into social development, were discussed by the representatives of 120 countries during the 6th World Science Forum, held November 24 – 27, 2013,  in Rio de Janeiro. About 700 researchers, government officials and entrepreneurs from every continent attended the event, whose main theme was science for global sustainable development. Held in Hungary every two years, this was the first time the Forum was hosted by another country. “The great challenge is to identify the role of science in shaping a better world and reducing regional inequalities,” said mathematician Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), which coordinated the event in partnership with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

A debate about the role of science in overcoming inequalities opened the plenary sessions. The economist Linxiu Zhang, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Agricultural Policy, showed how China’s economic growth has not been enough to reduce inequalities, and has led to fragile results in the country’s rural areas. “Our studies show that 40% of students in the countryside do not finish high school,” she explained. “We need to achieve equity with regard to human capital, for example in relation to education and health,” she said. Englishman John Burn, professor of clinical genetics at Newcastle University, in the UK, spoke about the experience of the Human Variome Project Consortium, a global initiative created in 2006 in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which hopes to reduce genetic diseases by sharing data on genomic alterations.  “We fully understand human DNA, but that’s not the solution. We have to know how to interpret it.  If we all share this information, we can greatly reduce the risk of disease,” he said.

The issue of scientific integrity was the subject of one of the sessions. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, director general of the International Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), a nonprofit organization based in Strasbourg (France), provided an overview of issues related to ethics in research, citing a recent report from the magazine The Economist. “The set of problems involves the inability to reproduce results and data from clinical studies, statistical errors, and vulnerability in the peer review process, as well as cases of incompetence, fraud and plagiarism,” he said. Paulo Beirão, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais who helped establish the Committee for Scientific Integrity of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), spoke about the role of research support agencies. He referred to the statement of principles on research integrity published by the Global Research Council, which proposed recommendations for funding agencies on how to encourage institutions and universities to implement good scientific practice policies, continuously train researchers and students, support investigations of suspect research, and incorporate scientific integrity as a condition for financing researchers and institutions. FAPESP has been putting these measures into practice since the publication of its Code of good scientific practice in 2011.

One of the conclusions of the session was that more extensive studies on the subject are still lacking, and are indispensable for guiding policy efficiently. “Some studies indicate that a large number of misconduct cases are not reported or investigated. The truth is that we do not have answers to many questions because we know only part of the problem,” said Nicholas Steneck, director of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research Ethics Program in the United States.

Steneck created controversy at the Forum by proposing a reduction in the number of PhDs awarded in certain fields as one measure to curb the excessive competition among researchers, which is considered one of the causes of misconduct. Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, noted that the Brazilian reality is different and the number of PhDs, although growing, is still insufficient to meet the needs of the country and of national science. At a roundtable on young scientists, Brazilian Eduardo Viotti, a federal senate advisor, took up the theme, showing, with data, that the recommendation cannot be applied to countries like Brazil, China and India, because they need more researchers.

A discussion about science and innovation brought out a mosaic of perspectives on the challenge of turning knowledge generated in universities into applications. Umar Buba Bindir, head of the Nigerian Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion, spoke about his country’s difficulties. It has more than 120 universities and is one of the major investors in science in Africa. “The reality is that, despite the investments and our country’s needs, we still don’t innovate enough,” he said. Shortly thereafter, Prof. Reiko Kuroda, of the Science Council of Japan, presented the strategies her country is employing to remain a technological powerhouse, and Carlos Tadeu Fraga, an executive manager at Petrobras, described Brazil’s research and development efforts to exploit the oil in the pre-salt layer.

The vice president of FAPESP, Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, was impressed with the diversity of experiences at the session. “Diversity is natural. Every country has different problems. What is clear is that Brazil has passed the stage of learning how to carry out scientific research and train human resources. The question now is how to determine the quality of our scientific research,” he said. “The main challenge is to transform scientific knowledge into economic and social development, and FAPESP has played an important role in this task, with programs that encourage partnerships between companies and research institutions in São Paulo, beyond innovation in small businesses,” he said.

The closing session of the Forum adopted a final declaration with five recommendations for governments, policy makers and scientists. First and foremost, the document recommends increased international cooperation and the coordination of national measures, especially with respect to issues like research infrastructure and access to knowledge, so that science is able to contribute to sustainable development.

The second recommendation is to prioritize basic and science education in order to reduce social inequalities and promote science and innovation. The third suggests actions to preserve scientific integrity by having institutions and researchers around the world adopt a common code of conduct. According to the declaration, scientists should be guided by “intellectual honesty, objectivity and impartiality, truthfulness, fairness and responsibility.” The fourth recommendation calls for more dialog between governments, society, industry and the media on topics related to sustainability. And lastly, the document proposes the creation of sustainable mechanisms for financing science, demonstrating concern about the cuts in science budgets in several countries since the beginning of the international financial crisis.

According to Jacob Palis, the contributions that resulted from the work done at the seven preparatory meetings held in various states since last year—the first one organized by FAPESP, in August 2012, in the state capital—were incorporated into the final document. Education to reduce inequalities, for example, was a Brazilian proposal, incorporated early during discussion of the document, Palis said. He praised the quality of forum discussions on topics such as bioenergy, which brought together experts from the United States, China, the Netherlands and South Africa—the biofuel production capacity in Latin America and Africa was touched upon by Luis Augusto Cortez, a professor at the University of Campinas and Deputy Coordinator of Special Programs at FAPESP. “Brazilian ethanol is a good example for biofuel production, but maybe a different model should be created, particularly in Africa,” he said.

At the closing session, József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, invited participants to the next World Science Forum, to be in Budapest in November 2015. In 2017, the event will again be held in a partner country, that time Jordan.

Inspirational experiments
Plenary addresses experiments in science education

Successful projects in the field of science education were presented in a plenary session at the World Science Forum. Pierre Léna, a member of the Academy of Sciences of France, chronicled the experience of the La main à la pâte Foundation, which has sought to make the procedures of scientific research more familiar to elementary school students since 1996. The program associates the practice of questioning with the performance of experiments by students. Children are invited to observe a phenomenon and carry out experiments related to it. While investigating, they discuss ideas and results in order to build their knowledge. The activities are organized to create a learning progression.

X Lab Headquarters in Germany: courses and a camp

M. FERBERX Lab Headquarters in Germany: courses and a campM. FERBER

At least two hours per week are set aside for exploring a particular topic over the course of several weeks. “Any process of nature, even the simplest, can help teach science,” Lena said. The challenges, he said, are to start early, between the ages of 6 and 12, use real, interesting examples, train teachers and open schools so that families and the community can learn and participate in the program. La main à la pâte generated pilot projects in several countries, including Chile, the United States, Germany, Australia and Mexico —in Brazil, it inspired the project Mão na Massa, developed in various cities together with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. According to Léna, pilot experiments are no longer needed. “We know what works. The question now is to disseminate the method on a large scale,” he said.

At the high school level, the biochemist Eva-Maria Neher presented the X Lab Project, a set of well-equipped research laboratories designed to bridge the gap between high school and university learning. Set up on the campus of the University of Göttingen in Germany, in a colorful building where each floor is dedicated to a field of knowledge, the X Lab offers 80 courses of up to three weeks in length in areas such as neurobiology, biology, ecology, chemistry and physics, coordinated by researchers. The courses, in English, are taken by students from various countries, including China, the Netherlands and Ukraine. “Young people do the experiments with scientists guiding them, rather than teachers guiding them,” said Neher. Summer camps are also organized in June and July for high school students and undergraduates, in which they are taught experimental methods in chemistry, physics and biology. In January, the program switches from English to German. Students and teachers from nearby cities participate in the Science Festival, with lectures and activities with renowned scientists, including some Nobel Prize winners.