French and science are a contradictory relationship

French and science are a contradictory relationship

In the 1970s a long series of surveys began looking at the evolution of the relationship that the French maintain with science and technology. An analysis of the most recent, published in November 2021, with sociologist Michel Dubois co-directing it.

how to scan” French and science », which you co-directed, is it different from a simple survey?
Michel Dubois. The health crisis was an occasion for the backlog of opinion polls. These can be useful, but they are not part of a long-term process and often serve the interests of their sponsors: associations, think tanks, manufacturers, etc. The survey “French and the Flag” follows a different logic. It is not intended to determine the state of our opinions so much as our position and representations regarding science and technology. It is also a direct extension of a series of surveys that have been carried out steadily, regularly, and in a method for nearly fifty years. It is the world’s longest-running longitudinal study on the subject, making France the country with the most hindsight about our representations of science and its transformations.

Where does this interest in our attitudes toward science and technology come from?
MD In the 1970s, the General Delegation for Scientific and Technical Research was already concerned about the supposed distrust of the French in terms of science and technological innovation. Then its officials were working on developing a form of Technology evaluation for French. They turned to the National Political Science Foundation to gauge the impact of past science protest movements in the United States. Very quickly, these studies made it possible to show that politicians’ initial intuition was unnecessarily alarming: whether in 1972 or in 2021, the vast majority of French people – between 84% and 89% depending on the time period – were given and continued to give. . Trust in principle to science or scientists. It is clear that the question of trust that seems to cast a shadow over the public debate in France is not the most relevant to understanding the major changes in our positions.

High school girls and their SVT teacher during a workshop with a technician in a laboratory of the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), in Vicente (78). For Michel Dubois, the educational institution can play a role in the perception of the hierarchy in terms of interest or credit for different disciplines.

Perceptions vary greatly according to research disciplines…
MD In fact, majors do not benefit from the same level of attention, nor the same credit. The French are primarily interested in medical research, life sciences and the environment. The “scientific” character of biology and medicine is evident to the vast majority of them.

This hierarchy may seem arbitrary to professional scientists, but it is best not to ignore it when communicating in the public space. It’s also an interesting puzzle. Is it a simple reflection of the unequal ability of disciplines to meet general standards of scientificity?

Agronomy is seeing its scientific character more and more, no doubt because it is seen today more than yesterday as being close to industrial issues and carrying environmental risks.

It is clear that other factors play a role: for example, the very method for determining these criteria, which is closely related to the level of education; The impact of the educational institution that distinguishes scientific fields from other fields. Or the somewhat controversial nature of the disciplines themselves. Why does agriculture see its scientific character more and more? Undoubtedly, it is seen more today than yesterday as being close to industrial issues and carrying environmental risks.

Were you surprised by some of the developments in the French people’s relationship with science?
MD Yes, for example, the majority of the French now consider that research should be developed only when we think it will have practical applications. Ten years ago, during the previous wave, the situation was diametrically opposed and priority was given to basic research without an expected application. The pandemic has undoubtedly played a role in reversing this trend.

A graph showing the evolution of the French’s answers in relation to their views on the development of research, between 1990 and 2020. Today’s majority considers “it is necessary to develop research only when one thinks it will have practical applications”. .

The survey also highlights a certain number of paradoxes: the French are mainly interested in research that is likely to “improve their lives” and in particular their health, but they are not sufficiently familiar with recent and strategic developments in life sciences and biotechnology. Among the surveyed population, only one in two people had heard of, say, epigenetics or Crispr-Cas9. It is clear that there is a good margin for progress in the dissemination of scientific culture.

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How did you adapt the 2021 edition of your survey to the health crisis?
MD The survey keeps the same set of questions from one wave to the next. This is what allows us to make comparisons over time. But each new wave is also an opportunity to take up one or more new topics. When we had to choose the angle of attack, in the summer of 2020, the question of the French about Covid-19 became clear.

The health crisis appears to have had more of an impact on the scientists themselves than on the public image of science.

We were getting out of the first inventory and the question of the relationship between science and society was really central. The results of this part of the survey surprised us. The health crisis appears to have had more of an impact on the scientists themselves than on the public image of science. For them, the crisis appears to be a crucial moment to reassess the performance of the scientific community.

Great emphasis has been placed over the past two years on fake newsConspiracy and misinformation are widespread on social networks. And it is undeniable that many rumors are circulating, for example, about the supposed harm of vaccines against Covid-19 vaccines in general. The vast majority of French people do not enjoy the naivety that is often attributed to them. They are found only in a very minority way in these treatises, between two and three French out of ten. This is certainly not to be underestimated, especially at a time when the question of the vaccine ceiling is important, but it is far from what we hear from commentators who, due to a lack of data, overrepresent artificially polarized minority positions.

Why would you generally describe the general public’s relationship with science as “contradictory” and “frustrating”?
MD The French’s relationship with science and technology often does not involve hostility or mistrust, nor does it have the unconditional enthusiasm or commitment that is observed elsewhere, especially in Northern Europe. When we ask our respondents about their general perception of the contributions of science, we better identify the paradox that makes the French situation unique.

A graph showing the evolution of French responses to the question of “the impression that science brings man more good than harm, or more harm than good or almost as beneficial as harm?”, between 1972 and 2020.

In 1972, the majority of French considered it clear that science was above all a vector of social progress, and that it brought “good out of harm”.

DrNow, six out of ten French people believe that science “brings as much good as bad.” This is the world record!

Fifty years later, these “pro-science” are in the minority: they are now six out of ten French people who consider science “as good as it bad.” This is the world record! This reversal in majority positions occurred in the mid-1980s and is deeper today because they are more likely to adopt a contradictory position (62%) than a positive judgment (27%).

When I invoke our “frustrated” relationship with science, I would of course describe a form of collective disillusionment, the result of the accumulation of successive health and environmental crises and sometimes false promises. But it is also necessary to emphasize the demand, which is always more important in public opinion, with the right to critical examination of certain scientific and technological options.

Should the French be better involved in discussions?
MD It is in any case a strong request on their part. Nearly six out of ten people ask to be more involved in major science and technology choices. Only a third of the population accepts the idea of ​​expertise “by delegation”, that is, the idea that specialists should decide on their own and communicate their reasons after the fact to the general public, without ever consulting them.

This observation should prompt us to take a critical look at what has been done in France, from the GMO consensus conference in the 1990s to the recent Citizens Climate Conference, in order to work better on new models of participation. The Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Options could play a more central role, at the interface of Parliament, the scientific community and civil society. But this presupposes rather profound modifications, especially from the point of view of their position with regard to the bodies responsible for public debate, whether it is the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (Cese) or the National Committee for Public Debate. Strong political will is needed to lead a reform of this kind.

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