Soledad Román has asked me to write something regarding what one scientist feels in our current society, what he thinks, his/her role. Now you will find some answers to these questions.
Today, more than ever, one scientist is known (he/she is in the highest levels among prestigious professionals, according to the polls), the economic profitability of his/her action is notoriously valued (it is said that for each euro invested on science, 3 Euros are collected) and their activity is preserved from cuts (in Germany, for example, or relatively in Catalonia). Despite all of this, scientists, as it has probably been throughout modern history, we feel sometimes misunderstood and frustrated due to the incapacity of being heard. For example, 99% of scientists think that the relationship among human activity, the CO2 increase – much higher than the inter-glaciers levels- and the increase of temperature in our planet – with the highest levels ever known- has been absolutely proved. And thus, fruit of our activity, mainly during the last 160 years, we foresee destructive consequences on our environment, agriculture, health and the quality of life. Instead, more than half of the population is reluctant to accept this fact. And the latest efforts to establish policies of control against global warming have become a failure.The current breaking off of prejudices due to scientific discoveries does not probably have the dramatic magnitude they had in Galileo’s days, when Renascence men were reluctant to admit that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, or men belonging to the XX century, when Darwin taught that man is not an alive being independent from the others. Despite the changes throughout the time, after the lack of acknowledgement regarding global warming and, thus, the lack of will to cope with it, apart from the resistance to growing in a sustainable way and thinking over our ways of production, we have our own prejudices because of believing that Gaia or one superior Being will be able to stop in time the climatic chaos we have exposed the Earth to.
One of the key aspects regarding global warming consequences is the possible inequality of its harmful effects. The reason between effects on health and CO2 production is absolutely inverse, so the less guilty ones are/will be the most affected. One of the most remarkable dilemmas in science lies in this and it also affects the current scientists. The difficulty to agree two different categories: science and moral. The fact that the most affected – think about malnutrition – can be the ones who have less responsibility in the origin of global warming is a key element in the lack of will to cope with it. So, those who have the capacity to decide nowadays do not notice the effects in the same magnitude, in comparison to areas where the consequences are already remarkable such as Africa horn or Southeast of Asia. This fact is linked with moral, with the will of being fair, and does not belong to science. It is here where scientists are coping with their limits. The consequences of knowledge can turn into indifference, denial, and bad use. This is not new and, if it is taken to its limits, we must remember the fact happened last century when scientists had to face worse situations when, for example, the advances in physic-chemistry took to atomic bomb manufacture, or the progresses in chemistry that allowed the Nazi program during the Final Solution in the killing fields.
This confusion between science and moral takes to other ridiculous situations such as the denial of species evolution due to moral reasons. Once again this incapacity to connect scientific knowledge with popular knowledge and, thus, to allow the capacity of making a positive use for man and this scientific knowledge environment. This fact becomes during the last years, mainly in the powerful circles of the USA, so strong that makes us become alarmed as scientists. In the case of global warming, the denial of scientific knowledge has a key role, and those who deny the species evolution are the first ones defending the “social Darwinism” which can be found behind the lack of will to preserve an equity in the policies and, in the global warming case, to take actions.
Another one of the current cases is air pollution in cities. The knowledge of the negative effects on health of particles and gases generated by traffic has evolved in a remarkable way during the three last decades and we now know that the air we are breathing is toxic and generates serious and chronic problems whose magnitude is notorious (for example, the number of deaths due to vehicles is larger because of pollution than because of accidents). Those countries in Europe taking fewer actions to cope with this problem are the ones having a bigger pollution, as it happens in our cities. Probably these countries invest less money on research and, thus, they value less the role played by scientists and the benefits of applying the knowledge they generate.
Perhaps the cryptic language that we scientists use, the hermetic behavior during our meetings and an excess of conservatism in renewing our codes and our behavior, take us away from society. Nevertheless, we must say that in the Catalan context, the rift between scientists and citizens has become much narrower due to the remarkable generation of scientific journalists, fruit of the good role during their Education in our University. We must also value, in a remarkable way, the effort carried out during the last years to increase the expense on research and the structuring of Catalan research with efficiency in high level centers. Despite all of this, the current slow can take to frustrate the hopes. We all must understand that science is a very remarkable source to create qualified jobs. These centers have a mixed way of financing that has allowed the surviving to the crisis so far and even keeping on growing despite the reduction of public funds. Regarding the Catalan level, where research is acquiring leader dynamism, scientists we feel we deserve this challenge and we feel we have the capacity to keep on propelling it.
I would like to finish talking about the inner strength that moves scientists to work for salaries that are relatively modest, carrying out a lot of activities in an almost volunteer way, not onerous (from reviewing other colleagues’ discoveries, their projects or their centres, to give lectures or writing). Perhaps it is just the will to know, the interest to give answers to questions and the satisfaction of going further, what really moves us. Perhaps we are in the sphere of searching human happiness, what is essential in man’s life, probably like artists and musicians who pursue it with a different way of knowledge. All in all, the role of science has contributed and keeps on contributing to built a look on the world and man, which takes to certain way of living. And scientists we will go on growing our curiosity, reading, thinking and writing, struggling to carry out projects with the maximum quality just for the pleasure of learning and the will of being of help.
◊ Jordi Sunyer is doctor on Medicine and Surgery, specialized on Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine. He worked as epidemiologist in the Instituto Municipal de Investigación Médica in Barcelona between 1984 and 1988 and ever since, he has been a senior researcher in this Institution. He is Co-Director in the Centro de Investigación en Epidemiología Ambiental (CREAL), Director of the IMIM’s Epidemiology and Public Health Program, and Professor in the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. He is the coordinator of the study of the neonates, childhood and Environment groups (INMA Project).