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Science and society

There is growing recognition of the need to bridge the gap between science and society, to find ways of helping the public understand that the production of knowledge is behind everything we do, while at the same time ensuring scientists are aware of societal issues and include them in their research whenever possible.

There are many ways of achieving this. One example is offered by the work of French physicist Michel Spiro on the dissemination of basic research—that which aims to generate knowledge rather than answers that can be immediately applied, but which often answers questions that have not yet been asked. Spiro calls on other scientists to share their work and explain how it can help meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Another approach growing in popularity is citizen science, which is explored in this issue’s cover story. The term was adopted in the 1990s, and the practice involves the participation of the public—people with no scientific education or experience—in the knowledge production process.

As science became a professional vocation over the course of the nineteenth century, the previously frequent participation of nonspecialists in research began to fall. A practice known as armchair anthropology, for example, involved travelers and missionaries recording observations about the cultural traits of new populations, which were later interpreted by scholars who had no personal contact with their object of study. At the same time, ethnographical methods were becoming increasingly common, with anthropologists conducting fieldwork to collect data.

In its current guise, citizens participate in surveys on the ecological patterns of animal species, meteor recording, air quality monitoring, and various other activities. Collaborating with the public has unequivocal benefits: it allows scientists to collect data that could not be obtained in any other way and to identify new scientific approaches based on circumstances of the participants, and it promotes scientific literacy. There are limitations, however: the precepts of citizen science have little or no application in many fields, and it can be difficult to motivate researchers and keep volunteers engaged.

The alarm continues to sound regarding climate change, as shown by a report warning of a 50% chance of global warming reaching 1.5 °C within nine years if we carry on living ‘business as usual’. Reversing this situation will require action on a large scale, without detracting from the importance of small changes to contribute to a more sustainable means of production. Two articles offer examples of new approaches. Brazil produces 1.6 million tons of açaí per year, but only 30% of the fruit is usable in food and drinks. The waste has been used to make cosmetics, plastics for prostheses, and as an energy source. The automobile industry is now attempting to incorporate plant-based materials into the manufacturing process of vehicle parts and accessories, reducing the environmental costs of its products.