9th December 2013

Exploring the Future of Energy

Need for a Dialogue between Science and Society

This year the Nobel Foundation launches a new format, the Nobel Week Dialogue. I feel honoured to get the opportunity to write about this event as a coordinator and part of the official english blogging team, consisting of Jim Caryl, Maria Delaney, Ashutosh Jogalekar and John Timmer and the swedish bloggers Eva Barkeman and Emil Nilsson.

What makes the Nobel Week Dialogue so special to me is that means not only interdisciplinary discussions led by Nobel Laureates, leading scientists from various fields, policy makers and opinion leaders, but also an opening to the broad public. This year the Dialogue is dedicated to the genetic revolution – 50 years after James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. A topic that has shown in the past few decades, that a constant dialogue between science and society is necessary. Just to mention some of the most important points:

  • genetically modified organisms,
  • prenatal genetic diagnosis,
  • synthetic biology or
  • personalized medicine.

All these topics require a socio-political debate at the local and the global level. On Sunday, December 9 2012 the one day event, the Nobel Week Dialogue, will foster discussion about the genetic revolution and prospects for science and society. Which also means scientists will discuss with the broad public. A format I very much appreciate.

Me, I am a chemist and have never been working as such, but as a science journalist since nearly 20 years after. Writing about scientific outcomes and news, doing background stories, my interest focused at an ever increasing rate on how to provide first hand information from scientists themselves. On how we may establish a dialogue between the public and the researchers and how can we help to overcome prejudices and not at least language barriers.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to launch the German Scienceblogs portal, which exactly fitted into this direction. On this Portal the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings started their conference blog in 2008. Ever since then I have been the coordinator of the Lindau blog activities, for which we launched even a special community website in 2010. With a yearly changing international blog team we report of the event where about two dozen Nobel Laureates discuss and exchange ideas with about 600 young researchers from all over the world for one week. The Meeting takes place since 1951 and there exists a huge collection of podcasts and videos. There for example one might listen to 39-year old James Watson’s lecture in 1967.

During these meetings I had the opportunity to interview several Nobel Laureates, which is always an honour and pleasure. Especially as the Laureates, who attend the Lindau Meetings, like to talk and to interact and are open for discussions.

Not all scientists are open for such interactions, as my experiences as a science journalist showed me in diverse conversations with researchers. Even today researchers often are not aware of the need for a dialogue with the public. In the eyes of those researchers, journalists should take care of the communication about science and ‘translate‘ what scientists do.

One reason for their reservation could be that communication often is not part of science or humanities studies. But it is worth the effort, when researchers try it and learn to talk in a language understandable to lay people. Getting more and more focused on this topic I am today Deputy Scientific Director of the National Institute for Science Communication, NaWik (Nationales Institut für Wissenschaftskommunikation) in Germany, which aims to address this situation.

I am now looking forward to Stockholm and to lively debates between excellent experts and the public at this one-day event. One of my favourite topics will be personalized medicine. This year an interesting debate (with Bert Vogelstein, who will also attend the Nobel Week Dialogue) about the ‘Predictive Capacity of Personal Genome Sequencing’ took place in Science Translational Medicine1. The assessment by Nicholas J. Roberts (et al.) says among other things genetic testing will not be the dominant determinant of patient care. A conclusion that matches my personal experiences. This year I had my genome tested by a commercial provider within the framework for a story for Wired Germany. In my case, the knowledge gained was rather low to non-existent.

But with whole genome sequencing at low prices on the horizon this might change. Especially when more people are willing to upload their genome data anonymized in large networks along with informations about phenotype, diseases, characteristics and traits. We also have to take into consideration that more and more physicians and ethologists are now using smartphones and apps to track people’s behaviour. Thinking about what could be analyzed with these big data, this could mean an immense step towards personalized medicine. The question is whether we want such analyses and what conclusions we draw. In my opinion there is an emerging need for discussions about this, as it might have many influences on society and policy – not only medicine.

Another reason why such new dialogue formats as the Nobel Week Dialogue are even more important.


1) DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003380
Also recommended: ‘Genetic Influences on Disease Remain Hidden‘ by Jocelyn Kaiser



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