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Seeing Opportunity in the Coronavirus Crisis

During the coronavirus crisis, scientists are often being asked to take part in interviews and discussions. Even complex topics related to virology and statistics have become popular. In this interview, Jülich expert Prof. Hans Peter Peters explains why this is the case. He addresses public opinion on science and technology.

Prof. Hans Peter Peters im GesprächProf. Hans Peter Peters: "We live in a scientific society".
Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Sascha Kreklau

Prof. Peters, why is science currently held in such high regard?

In times of acute crisis, people are highly motivated to learn something new, since such knowledge has a direct relevance for them. They’re also not put off by complex explanations, as the sheer number of often very dry scientific articles in circulation can confirm. Information is being actively requested and sought out, because they help in understanding, analysing, and assessing the current situation and the measures that have been put in place.

Has science now taken centre stage in our society thanks to the coronavirus?

The scientification of society has been going on for decades now, it’s just that we don’t usually notice. Modern medicine, technology, and policy advice based on scientific findings are part of everyday life. In the coronavirus crisis, science is now increasingly coming into the focus of public consciousness. The latest surveys dedicated to the coronavirus show that the population currently has a very positive opinion of research. I think this is largely due to science currently being associated with the promotion of “health”, a key societal value.

Is science in danger of losing this reputation when researchers disagree in public about their interpretation of the data?

No. The crisis and all its uncertainties (including over data) and various interpretations instead show the public how science works as a social process – we become witnesses of “science in the making”. Science no longer takes place in a “black box” from which irrefutable truths emerge after long internal discussions. There, of course, needs to be something akin to a protected space in which scientists can discuss and disagree with one another. But particularly in times of crises, it is not possible to control the point at which this kind of internal debate goes public. Here it is the responsibility of journalists to draw on well-founded conclusions and get their facts in order.

Knowledge-based decisions appear to be well-received during the pandemic. Will this have any effect on the debate surrounding climate change?

The main thing about the current situation is the acute nature of the crisis. Climate change, in contrast, is a gradual process. The difference between the two is not in the way that scientists are acting or communicating but rather the situation itself, the fact that a single value – life and health – can be prioritized while all others are disregarded for the time being. Over the course of the last few weeks, we have started to see a shift in these priorities towards educational equality, the economy, and civil liberties. Such aspects are also relevant for climate change. And although the message regarding climate change has been communicated very well and is accepted as a fact in Germany, the problem lies in implementing the decisive measures that are necessary. Apparently we’re good at enduring inconsistencies between insight and action. And facts are often pushed to one side despite our better knowledge, because the consequences are simply too uncomfortable to confront. But perhaps the current crisis offers the opportunity for change at a broader level, particularly when things that were supposed to be taken for granted are now being fundamentally questioned.

This interview was conducted by Brigitte Stahl-Busse.

Further information

Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine - Ethics in the Neurosciences (INM-8)