Helga Nowotny spoke at almost every conference I have attended in the past few months: ESOF in Dublin (July), Falling Walls in Berlin (November) and now the Nobel Week Dialogue.
So third time around, what message does the President of the European Research Council have to tell us?
Nowotny compared the new EU funding strategy, Horizon 2020, to what she called “Horizon 1620″. This was the year which Francis Bacon “sailed through the pillars on knowledge”. Bacon and others promised “the effecting of all things possible”. She cited an important part of this enlightenment era as the belief in progress.
Looking back at the industrial revolution, Nowotny said “it was only when [technology] came together with science that it became the driver that we see today”.
The conference so far has had a strong focus on history and Nowotny’s talk stuck with this theme.
It was interesting that she mentioned the economic crisis as this is something that is severely affecting science funding across European countries: “Crisis apparently has become a condition here to stay.” However, Nowotny did not expand or give advice to these cash-strapped countries on this occasion.
Speaking of the genetic world, she said “we may be entering a second renaissance”. She went on to say that “only if you inform the public”, will they understand and engage with science. I understand that Nowotny is speaking about the new genetic era but I was disappointed she didn’t address the strain on fundamental science especially in recent years which could prevent some of this work.
Nowotny mentioned her book, Naked Genes and said “human enhancement e.g. in sports, make the boundary between what is natural and artificial disappear”. I was surprised to hear her say human enhancement is the “driver in society” but when you look at our focus on curing disease and improving ourselves, I suppose this is true!
Towards the end of the talk, Nowotny spoke about ethics and promises. Politicians across the world should listen to this wise nugget: “Be careful with promises we make and not to betray them.”
This was an interesting talk but I would have loved to hear more about Horizon 2020 especially in terms of genetic research. Perhaps Nowotny will say that at the next conference I attend.
Maria Delaney tweets @mhdelaney.