In recent years, we have seen increasing resistance to openness, democracy and international cooperation, and science has become increasingly important on this new playing field. Populist forces question research results and choose data and information financed by actors with vested interests, and even use "alternative facts" that better fit their purposes. We need a stronger role for science in decision making, writes Karolina Skog, Swedish Minister for the Environment (MP) together with four executives from the scientific community.
On 22 April, the March for Science will take place in more than 500 locations around the world, and in four locations in Sweden in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Uppsala and Umeå. The purpose is to highlight the importance of science and research to society. At a time when concepts such as "fake news” and "alternative facts" have become an increasingly common in public debate, open, strong and credible research is extremely important.
Great progress has been made in global development in the last century. People have been lifted out of poverty, many more people have secure access to water, food and energy and opportunities for education. Research, technical innovation and strengthened institutions have been key to this progress.
At the same time there are growing challenges around the use of and competition for natural resources. There is a growing impact on our climate, freshwater and oceans, soil resources, and biodiversity. The Living Planet Index, which measures the state of health for a representative sample of different species, shows a decline of 58 percent between 1970 and 2011, and in 2016 the global average temperature reached the highest level since measurements began.
Economic inequality declined between countries in recent decades, but it has also increased in many countries. The Gini coefficient, which measures economic inequality, shows that it in Sweden it has increased by 10 percent between 1982 and 2011. We have in many ways achieved a more peaceful and safer world, but we also see new conflicts flaring up. These have had major effects far beyond the areas directly affected by conflict, through new geopolitical tensions and extensive migration. The world is not, and has never been black or white.
We encourage a stronger role for science in decision making. We therefore call for more collaboration between researchers and governmental agencies and to strengthen existing mechanisms.
While the world faces major and complex challenges, at the same time we have never had better opportunities to move toward positive and sustainable development. The political foundation to build on is there: in 2015, the world community agreed on 17 global goals for sustainable development and a new climate agreement, the historic Paris agreement. Countries, regions, cities, companies and many others are now working hard to translate these agreements into concrete actions. And the work is successful; one example is that the Paris agreement came into force in November 2016, four years before the timetable.
Innovation and technology development are crucial if we are to seize these opportunities. Almost all solutions spring from a dynamic and successful research environment. We believe there is a positive force, driven by change in an increasingly globalized society, where more and more players outside politics are taking on responsibility. For example, two successful collaborations between Swedish politicians, international decision-makers and research institutes are the New Climate Economy and the Arctic Resilience Report. The Swedish Government has also launched five strategic collaborative programs that gather decision-makers, researchers and companies to collaborate and develop solutions to the challenges we face as a society.
At the same time there is cause for concern: in recent years, we have seen increasing resistance to openness, democracy and international cooperation, and science has become increasingly important on this new playing field. Populist forces question research results and choose data and information financed by actors with vested interests, and even use "alternative facts" that better fit their purposes. Countries are cutting research funding, and we see governments micro-managing how research should be implemented. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for the public to evaluate and distinguish between positions based on credible and peer-reviewed research and what is unsubstantiated opinion or, in some cases, information designed to deliberately mislead.
How do we deal with this phenomenon? We propose that Sweden should raise these issues within the EU and other international fora, and also work to stimulate interest in science and an awareness of scientific methods in Sweden. We especially encourage:
- A stronger role for science in decision making. We therefore call for more collaboration between researchers and governmental agencies and to strengthen existing mechanisms, such as the Swedish Scientific Council on Sustainable Development.
- The critical review of information and facts by decision-makers to inform and develop policies, and ensure that documents supporting decision-making are based on evidence and science.
- That schools run courses on source criticism for pupils at an earlier stage than is currently the case.
- That universities raise their ambition to communicate knowledge to society and to the public. A more informed public is key for achieving change.
- That research funders, universities and higher education institutions increase their efforts to make scientific literature and data digitally available and free of charge to the public, without compromising on quality.
While the scientific method has its shortcomings, it is the best method we have for generating reliable knowledge. To change one’s position in the face of new evidence, to encourage transparency and reasoning, to question as part of a creative process; these are important features of the scientific method that we can all be inspired by. We must continue to ask the simple yet powerful question "How do you know that?"
We are participating in March for Science today to emphasize the important role of science in our open, democratic society. The march is open to all and we hope that many will be there and demonstrate their commitment.
Karolina Skog (MP), miljöminister; Lisa Sennerby Forsse, preses Kungliga Skogs- och Lantbruksakademin; Åke Iverfeldt, vd Mistra, Stiftelsen för miljöstrategisk forskning; Eva Krutmeijer, forskningskommunikatör och en av initiativtagarna till March for Science i Stockholm och Johan Kuylenstierna, vd Stockholm Environment Institute:
”Viktigare än någonsin att vi förlitar oss på vetenskapen”
Christofer Fjellner (M), Europaparlamentariker:
”Regeringen agerar i strid med forskningsresultat”
Läs fler artiklar på DN Debatt.