Flanders’ Future as a Knowledge Society (F2KS)

Conclusions by the Thinker, José Mariano Gago

This page is built around the conclusion speech of José Mariano Gago, Thinker in Residence of the Academy's 2014 Thinkers Program. This lecture was given at the symposium Flanders’ Future as a Knowledge Society in perspective, on November 28, 2014 at the Palace of the Academies in Brussels.

  Slideshow accompanying this talk
  Text (edited talk transcription)
  Video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/MmdRfFEcJ4g

What follows on this page is the literal talk transcription. These are the spoken words of Mariano Gago. For an edited version of this, having full sentences, download the Text.

A knowledge-based society under catalysis: a personal summary, and some naive proposals for action

I hope you are still alive. It's very simple. In the program, I've got half an hour to speak — we are half an hour late, so the equation is very easy to solve. You don't need to have a degree in mathematics for that. We can go immediately to the closing by the President of the Academy.

I'll try to be as brief as possible, and that's not simple. I was asked to speak about the whole subject and your work that I have tried to catalyse during one year. I was also asked to draw some conclusions out of this conference. That's not easy in five minutes, but I'll do my best.

First of all, I want to thank you, and to praise your initiative. You probably don't know, but the initiatives by the organised scientific community, like the Academy or other scientific societies, are normally invisible in Europe and very scarse. There are very few initiatives that go beyond their immediate objectives. Of course there are initiatives for research spending, laws or organisation of universities, but societal questions raised by professional scientists, which are of course needed to succesfully bring in other members of society, are not very common in any European country. I have been following this for several decades and I can tell you that the initiatives by the organised scientific community are not very common. Individual initiatives are of course plenty. And because of that, I was proud to help. Because you were enthusastic, and committed to a difficult task that you were not sure you could succeed. And no one could be sure to succeed, because it requires an enormous involvement, not only by those related to the science based professions and economy, but also to the rest of society.

Some history

I tried to organise my mind, so I will try to go swiftly to this organisation. It has been recalled during this conference, and I have checked it with Luc Soete, that the coining of the word Knowledge Economy was by Dominique Foray in 1994. In fact, it was immediately injected into the political machinery of OECD in 1995. It was at the same time the era of information technology deployment, so information society came first, because that was the American translation of what in that time in Europe was still "highways of information".

But at the same time, the science system got an economic input it was in need of. It was the first time — I remember, in the nineties — that organized groups of economists and the OECD amplified the idea that indeed the science system was an essential part of the economy and of its progress. You recall that in the beginning of the '90s, John Ziman had written "Science in a dynamic steady state". In fact, increase of the public budget of science since the second world war and the enormous accumulation of human and physical capital for science in the United States has started to produce an enormous revolution in the private sector, mainly in the United States and later in Europe. The message of recognition from the economy at the highest level had an enormous impact on policymaking at that time.

In the year 2000, there were major political breakthroughs. Not surprisingly, because it was the continuation of this discussion over the nineties and the amplification of information technology and the need in Europe to respond to the visible investment in IT in the United States. You must recall that, when in 2000, there were major debates in many European countries and communication companies to see if the Internet should be left to the market or the government should do something, namely in schools. The opinions were divided. Some said: it 'll be something like telephone lines — you shouldn't do it. And in fact, more than ten years earlier, the National Science Foundation had dedicated money from the research budget of the US to pay for the connection of schools all over the United States to the Internet.

The major breakthrough was the council in 2000. This idea, that Europe should become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, that was 14 years ago. For the first time, you see the preparation of the transition to a knowledge-based economy and society by better policies for the information society. You will recall that in that time, Luc Soete was one of the distinguished economists who were an essential part of the preparation of this unanymous decision by policy leaders. At the time, the discussion was between France and the UK, on one hand on the European social model and on the other hand on the investments in innovation and IT. The combination of those conflicts was positively resolved by the idea of investing in education AND research and expanding the idea of investing in IT into investing in something more profound than technology, where people were going to profit from. A different education that IT would help to provide, would be there. This is the political status and the history.

Some remarks

For the record, I would just like to address a word of recognition, on why I come here now, trying to address you with this. I must thank professor Irina and the steering committee for that. If I had the time, I would make you laugh with the exchange of e-mails starting in April 2013 and finishing with an act of folly when I said yes. But I said yes, changing the idea of "Thinker" into the idea of a "catalytical role", of catalysis. I won't bother you with values and what catalysis means in Old Greek — normally it means destroy, etc. but one of the meanings is "stay just one night" — it's in Themistocles. It's a curious idea that the Academy accepted swiftly the idea that I could just come for one night!

I would like to show you — because at this time of the day I must also entertain you — the 2004 novel by Georges Charpak, Nobel prize winner of Physics in 1992, whom I worked together with at CERN when he was developing his white chambers which were the beginning of the new particle and PET imaging techniques in hospitals. And then he developed this movement "La main à la pâte" for science education in schools in France. He was inspired by Leo Max Lederman in the United States, another Nobel prize winner in Physics. In 1994, we wrote in his dedication: "Ils sont fous, à Bruxelles". The last words are "Ils mettent le chariot devant les boeufs." That was about what we are discussing here. He was not speaking about physics, but about the promotion of science and science education.

There is another point of view I will try not to avoid, because it might seem too theoretical or too philosophical, but it comes back to us now. It's a question on the fundamentals of knowledge and technology. Some of you are probably aware of the intellectual revival, these days and even the last weeks, of the discussion on the famous essay by Heidegger in 1949. One of the intellectual founders of Europe, Denis De Rougemont, wrote "Information is not knowledge" in 1981. That remained as a flag for information technologists and this paper was extremely influential in the idea that one should go beyond information. Today, we listened to Svein Sjoberg, saying that the technology for testing education systems does not necessarily improve education. In 1939, just before the second world war, one of the most interesting papers appeared — no one realised it at the moment — La Meditación de la técnica by José Ortega y Gasset. In 1949 — the war ended in 1945 — Heidegger said: "farming is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same as the fabrication of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starving of the peasantry, the same as the fabrication of the hydrogen bomb." This has been discovered and discussed in the '50s and then people as usually forgot all about it. It's now back — this quotation is from the issue of next week to come of the New York Review of Books. There is a lot of discussion now about it.

It has deeply to do with the idea that society is becoming technical and so all things that are technical, are more or less the same, and inspired by the same principles. Many people in fact, have that as a gospel, and that should be attacked from the very start, if you are discussing knowledge based societies. This is a ghost that is hanging above our heads all of the time. And it's coming back. Don't think that it's something of '49: it's coming back, over and over again. This intellectual debate exists. Sorry to be so brief about it.

So you have asked yourselves: how to mobilise society in order to convince families, young people, to study science. It's hard work. Of course it's hard work. For those who like it, it can be fun. But it's hard work. Hard work can be fun. Fine, but it can also be very depressing. But it's hard, and it's work — nothing to do about it. You can't learn anything decently, either science or arts or philosophy, without hard work. And to send a different message to education is really cheating the young people.

There is a vast international and European accumulated expertise, namely in the last twenty years, related to this political evolution, many of these books have been published — I've just chosen some of them, all European. This question has been asked over and over again for the last twenty years in many countries and on the European level. We are revisiting something that has been intensively studied. Thousands of pages have been written and recommendations have been transformed into law in many countries, into investments programs, into training teachers, in structures. These are available in many, many countries.

Some conclusions

We have developed the acronym F2KS for Flanders' Future as a Knowledge Society! I will use this acronym as the name of a program, as if it was an object. I am now coming to the main part of the subject, of what I have learned with you, these last months.

I. F2KS is a decoder of new signs of societal threats and opportunities

It is about developing a process. If you want to change, you need a process, because you need to involve people and to recognise factors. As those who are experts in forward looking studies know, normally a forward looking study is deployed by identifying the shape of factors and the shaping actors for the future. So without the social actors, the people, the organisations etc., without the factors which condition their action, you cannot look forward.

What I have recognized, is signs of anxiety, signs of change and signs of perplexity.

Signs of anxiety

  • The perception of a lack of motivation for studying science, by many
  • The anticipation of a future deficit of science teachers
  • The perception of a lack of certain technical professionals

These three signs of anxiety — not thirty, but three major.

But there are signs of change. I have put all of them with a question mark, as it's up to you to know whether they're real, or just wording.

Signs of change

Apparently, there is a tendence to try to address social mechanisms (some would call them anachronisms) rooted in the school system and rethinking the question of social selectivity in education. I have seen all statistics in education, but I have seen no statistics pointing out what has been obvious in many European countries: is the school system contributing to social mobility, or not contributing to social mobility? That question is all over the place a key political element in European countries.

Second, trying to address students’ orientation and information systems. To address this, is to give political orientations to the orientation and information systems. They are not technical, they are political.

And third, being aware of the need to change and looking for signs of disruption. Is the system going to remain as it is, or is it going to be disrupted? Will it be disrupted because of islamic students in some communities were migrants are important, or will it be disrupted because students will not go into the professions that are needed?

Signs of perplexity
These are my signs of perplexity.

How to face the impossibility — 'cause it's impossible — of both reproducing social rigidity and segregation and at the same time help infusing new innovative energies in youth?

How to increasingly assert the right of political self-determination — that's a key point in a region like Flanders but also in other regions and nations in Europe, and Flanders is historically a nation — and at the same time move towards a more diverse and open society? Because this is a challenge, to do this and not go into isolation.

How to invest creatively and generously in transforming exclusion into opportunity? The percentage of well-educated women in full time jobs in science based professions is very low in society — and that's an enormous threat. There are drop-outs in education: young people leaving school without a diploma. And there is a problem that you share with many other rich societies in Europe: the third and second generation of immigrants. Will they be considered a problem or an opportunity, and is society prepared to invest the money and resources needed to transform this problem into an opportunity?

II. F2KS should be a platform for concerted action to solve these problems.

For that, you need to identify the dimensions of these actions. I've tried to identify these dimensions. If I look at them politically, they could be programs with budgets and leadership and so on, and they are overlapping. They must be overlapping, so that there will be competition among the political and social actors.

First is the question of promoting scientific and technical culture in society, so bringing people more knowledge about science and technology.

Then is the question of general science education for everyone, and the role of science and technology learning at that stage — many of the discussions we had today with the science teachers were on this specific problem.

Then is the problems of lifelong learning, we have not addressed here today, the problems of vocational training, and of addressing social and economic perceived qualification gaps. These three areas need specific programs to be addressed. They cannot be addressed by wording. In the UK, the question of the economic perceived qualification gap has been and is being addressed by UK business, in collaboration with local educational authorities. In many other countries, there are other solutions, but all have this is common: they are systematic, they produce a kind of observatory, which involves the local education authorities or councils with schools (municipalities, parents and so on) and employers on the other hand. They do it systematically and locally.

Then, there is a problem of science communication and the media. I'm sorry, but I have never seen this problem being addressed without a strong public policy on this area. The number of science communicators, namely professional science journalists, can be greatly improved by government, simply. News agencies, desks for science can be asked for by the authorities. The promotion of training journalists out of the scientific professions is something that has been around in Europe for many years and in fact it attracts youth with high level of scientific training in every country. It helps to change the profession of journalists and to create professional desks of science and technology journalists in journals. We know this from economy: many journalists covering economy have got this type of training. So it could be extended to other areas.

And finally, the general political problem that any political party and any government must ask itself is: will my voters support me? For that, we have to strengthen and bring together the social, cultural and economic constituencies for science and technology. Those groups in society that, for different reasons and disconnected the one from the other, would be in favour of a priority to different areas of science and technology, bringing them together is something you cannot ask the people to do by themselves and you can't ask the second law of thermodynamics to do it for you. It requires external energy, it requires an applied field. And that applied field, in democratic societies, is provided by government — at national, regional or subregional level. One of the reasons why we elect authorities in a democratic society, is to bring in constituencies to promote causes and changes in society.

III. F2KS and the Academy could think about an independent proposal for coherent political objectives.

That is the role of an organized independent group of scientists: to address the authorities and to say what they think and what they propose. It's not to produce the technicalities of the action for them. It's to produce the ideas that will then have to be negotiated and translated into action by those who are in charge.

I have done the following exercise and this is the second moment of my speech that I will need something to protect me from the things you are going to throw at me. But I'm protected by the hour!

I've tried to write and to test a kind of political decalogue for the future of the knowledge society in Flanders. I've tested it some weeks ago in the Scientix conference in Brussels and I'm grateful for those who were there. I have checked with some of you some of the ideas there.

Ten points, that should in my view be discussed by you, because they could be part of a political program in a specific area, to all political parties and to any government.

1. First, the main purpose of general science and technology education, in obligatory education, for everyone, is the scientific and technological culture of society at large. It's not obvious, but there is a choice. If you do that, the training of teachers, the programs, the material, etc. have to be conditioned by this objective. This is the political objective.

2. Second, science education is not only part of the responsability of the ministry in charge of the ministry of education. It is part of any ministry in charge of research, of science and technology. Science and technology policy must devote a budget, organisation, means and pay the political price if there is a failure, for science education. They will say, well, we have x % new papers, in Nature, Cell, etc., that many innovations and patents, but what is their record to science education? It's part of the job, of a minister in charge of research!

3. Third, you require investing in science and technology education, formal and informal. Informal means science centers, and the media. You must invest in the media, and in schools, at all levels. And of course the usual suspects: you must invest in research, you must invest in innovation policies.

4. Fourth, this is a difficult point, and it has been with us for many, many years. The fact that, contrary to the expectations of those who live within the science sector, the youth and even some of the most creative youth, are not keen on science and technology, is a disease of rich societies. It is a disease of non-challenging ideas about science, and the fact that science is not connected to human values. Only the human values of science can motivate and permeate youth culture. You will not permeate youth culture in a rich society by only job perspective: we are not in rural China, where studying mathematics day and night is the only way out of poverty. No! We are in a rich society. In a vast number of families, youth will think: "why not choose something easier? Life will not be bad at all after all." So that's not the point. It's how science can permeate youth culture, and be appropriated by youth culture. It's not by telling the youth — sorry — that science is very important for making a lot of money in companies. That, very frankly, will not change the mind of any one of fourteen, fifteen. It's much more if you say that you are looking for extraterrestrial life. In fact, to say roughly and rudely what science is about! It's about pursuing the truth: proof, not authority; it's about knowledge, not ignorance; it's about technical training, not definitions — we haven't learned anything if in school we are told definitions: we just learned a name, but that's not science, sorry — it's history, where it comes from, not sound bytes.

On the other hand, we must teach students that science does not allow for neutrality. You may have in your life, if you go into a science based profession, to choose! You choose peace or war. Many of my colleagues have worked to develop very nasty bombs — some of them developed bombs where the remains of the bomb inside the body could not be detected by X-ray! Sorry, you must say: if you go into science, you must know if you are in favour of that — and some are in favour of that — or against it. Science is a battle ground, it's not neutral. And if you know it's not neutral, it becomes interesting. It can become part of the modern youth culture. You must choose between generosity or greed, and choose between disclosing or hiding the truth. Basic sciences are key, like astronomy and genetics. Many sciences are absolutely key and astronomy and particle physics — I am a particle physicist myself — are a key element to attract the imagination, both of society and of the students. And of course, the basics of the importance of science in society must be spelled out: you can't have quality control — the water you drink, the air you breathe — without science. Science provides society with a culture of evaluation and quality control, with risk governance — you would be submerged by epidemics without science, everyday — and with the tools for social communication and social cohesion — because public policies, if they are not tested by independent scientific methods, they will be rotten, as we all know.

5. I will go quickly now, because I am in the fifth commandment. You read and we'll go quickly to the others. [General science and technology education in schools is key to lifelong learning, to social adaptability and to social and political participation.]

6. My point in commandment six is, please do not split and create a barrier between what you call STEM and all the rest. You are not doing a service to the science teachers, nor to the students. I've told you, some hours ago, that some of the best science projects all over the world, have been obtained by the combination and the involvement of teachers and researchers of different areas. It includes languages, history and geography, etc. It can be lead by science and technology, but it must involve the school. If it doesn't involve the school, it's a failure. It means that the culture of the school has not been permeated by this drive for science and technology.

7. The seventh is a difficult point, and it's a threat, for many European countries. We have seen that and we are seeing that in Germany, France, the UK, and many other countries. The world has changed a lot and is changing every day. Poverty and war are at the frontiers of Europe. Ten years ago, the number of people crossing by boat the Mediterranean by night, was less than one tenth of those who are crossing today, and this number is increasing and will increase, because of war and refugees. The refusal of addressing poverty and war at the frontiers of Europe — of addressing, I'm not saying accepting or rejecting — and addressing the increasing inflow of refugees and (illegal) immigrants as an opportunity — because you will have them, anyhow — are major threats for the development of highly advanced European societies. With the declining birth rates in Europe and with many people coming in anyhow, something has to be done. Europe does not exist politically. Some countries, some regions, will do much better than others. The future of their economy and their social peace will be the price to pay at the end of the day.

8. This question, of the perceived lack of science and technology based professionals in the economy and in society, I think it must be taken seriously. It has been said loudly by many people, mainly from companies. Of course they know their field; they can't speak about society in general, but they can speak about their company. It must be taken seriously by the whole scientific community. First, for a political reason: if there is a group, which is part of the constituency for science, and this group perceives a problem, then this problem must become a problem of all of us. That is the only way to build a social consituency for science.

9. The question of science teachers has been predicted many years ago. There is a demonstration by John Ziman, who died some years ago: he said the following. "It is a sad fact that in most countries very few students who have specialised in science, technology or mathematics are recruited into teacher education. Paradoxically, the more a society has a need for people with a science and technology background, the less likely it is that such people will enter the teaching profession. Part of the reason is that remuneration, working conditions, possibilities for in-service training, etc. make the teaching profession less attractive than other areas of work for people who are in demand, in those areas. Well qualified and motivated science and technology teachers are key when it comes to stimulating future generations’ interest in science." You see the political lessons: it is difficult, but if the problem is not solved, the problem will not be solved. If symbolic and material remuneration, working conditions and possibilities for in-service training are not improved, the situation will be degrading. There is nothing new under the sun. It has happened in other countries, and it will happen in Flanders if nothing is done. It has been predicted years ago, it is not a novelty. And we know the solution! Many countries have solved this problem.

Here I come to my nineth point. Only the empowerment of science teachers and their social recognition by society, but mainly the empowerment of teachers in schools, is a key for success of sustainable science and technology policies. It has been discussed elsewhere, that the machinery that exists for funding research project work can be extended easily from the research budget, in addition to the education budget, for project work by science teachers themselves, teams of teachers and teams of students. But there is just one caveat about it. It must be additional: you can't just move money from one place to the other. And the dimension must be big enough. The tempation is to transform all that into an experiment, into innovation, but I'm sorry, if you do that, you'll not reach the scale to reach society, to bring this to the attention of parents and kids. I've made a calculation based upon my own experience and your population in school. If your minister would ask me, I would say that annual calls for proposals should aim at reaching, in less than three years time, at least 50 % of all schools, at least 1000 F2KS science teachers — I would cal them F2KS science teachers — and at least 100 researchers. And that is a very modest number. I hope that the generosity of researchers in giving free time for the schools in their neighbourhood as part of their social responsibility would very much increase this number. Numbers lower than this would not have an impact in society.

10. I will skip the tenth commandment and go directly to the end. [Devising and funding large scale stable national and international initiatives (such as Ciência Viva) and supporting independent initiatives aiming at bringing together schools, research centres, science-based professionals as well as industry and science centres.]

The end

The end must be peaceful and it must come from history. It has to do with our common background: Portugal and Flanders have been very close during the sixteenth century. Both have been doomed by intolerance. In fact the richest families in Leuven and Antwerpen, who were not only a source of wealth, but also of humanist culture, escaped to Amsterdam. The rise of religious intolerance in Europe, the rise of inquisition and religion wars, transformed two of the richest regions into normal dependent regions. The rise and fall of tolerance, humanism and prosperity in Flanders and Portugal in the 16th century should be a lesson for us — and it is a lesson that I try to remember. We are now in a stage where the rise of Europe as a knowledge society — there is no doubt about it: during the last 20 years, not only Flanders, but the whole European Union, has experienced an extraordinary progress towards the knowledge society. The number of students, the number of educated researchers, the investments in public and private research, the results and appropriation of research in products and services in society has been tremendous in the European Union in the last years. And that has been appropriated by almost all political parties and all governments; at least they all do something or pay lip service to the idea that they are in favour and they do what they can for a knowledge society. That, I call the rise of Europe as a knowledge society. But now we face an uncertain future. War has surrounded Europe and poverty trying to come into Europe has surrounded Europe, during the last ten years. Division has doomed the hopes of the years 2000 within Europe. Any of us, in each society, must do our best, to overcome this difficult situation.

As in a conference almost one year ago, I recall the famous humanist Damião de Góis, Portugese by birth, married to a Flemish family who fought for the defense of Leuven against the French troops. He was arrested and rationed by the king of Portugal. A friend of Erasmus. At the end of his life, after being back in Portugal as the royal historian, he was imprisoned by the inquisition and probably assassinated. Some years ago it was found that his many competences in the highest level included music. In fact a few sheets of music written by his hand, were found. It's a few seconds. The music you are going to listen is without words, but the words are a passage from the Bible which should be read in retrospect in these dark times, after an extraordinary expansion of the first globalisation of the world. That is the passage in Latin, translated:

Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, God will be my light.

Five centuries later, you will listen to his music.

Ne laeteris, inimica mea
Super me quia cecidi
Consurgam cum sedero
In tenebris Dominus lux mea est

Thank you.


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