Nearly half a century has elapsed since C.P. Snow’s The two cultures highlighted some features of contemporary culture that, in the author’s opinion, were jeopardising the full exercise of citizenship.
He wrote that the contrast between the arts on one side and the sciences on the other had resulted in the exclusion of some citizens from scientific culture, thus seriously affecting their sense of belonging in a society were science and technology were all-pervasive.
Much has changed in the intervening 50 years.
First of all, a “third culture” has emerged, created by historians, economists and sociologists who would not subscribe to the belief of many humanists that science was devoid of values. While this has led to the acknowledgement of the cultural value of science, it has also caused themes and values from other disciplinary fields to seep in the debate within scientific communities.
From a purely academic plane, the debate has moved into society and even citizens who do not possess the relevant disciplinary knowledge have been involved in scientific issues. This has tipped the balance reached between scientists and non-specialists in the late 1940’s based on the so-called principle of ‘blind delegation’, which granted scientists wide autonomy of fund allocation and usage, monitoring of result quality, and protection from political instrumentalisations such as those occurred in Nazi Germany or in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Thus, scientists worked in independent and self-regulated organisations and focused their work on basic research, which had no financial, military or technological implications. Citizens received benefits in return, namely technological innovations that improved their standard of living, more effective medical treatments, and a reassuring image of scientific progress and its ability to prevent destructive technological developments.
Widespread mistrust of science and technology on the part of the student movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-nuclear movement began to strain that balance in the 1960’s.
Another major change since Snow’s theory has been the emergence of new disciplines - molecular biology, bioengineering, IT, nanotechnologies, materials science - which have bridged the traditional gap between scientific disciplines at one end and humanistic and literary disciplines on the other, but also the divide between basic and applied science.
Finally, the perhaps most significant change has been the proliferation of audio-visual media, film and documentary production, and a combination of traditional media and the Internet.
Unlike newspapers, which disseminate ideas and knowledge, the new audio-visual media have progressively given up the idea of conveying knowledge: instead, they play a key role in the construction of cultural values and, more topically for this discussion, of perceptions of science and technology that have deep repercussions on resource allocation, on student choice of University, and on the ethics of scientists.
Just take a look at our screens and you will see that scientific knowledge is being delivered not only in TV entertainment shows - in a way that is not always explicit but all the more effective because of this - but also in all products from the film and documentary industry. Suffice it to mention the wealth of films and documentaries that our Window on Science Festival has been able to show over its 12-year existence.
The wealth and variety of productions has enabled us to pursue our main objective, i.e., constructing shared values regarding the nature of scientific knowledge, its implications in daily living and in civilisation levels, and scientists’ ethical choices. Moreover, so many films and documentaries are being made that each year we can showcase new products in our Festival.
Unesco declared 2008 as the International Year of Planet Earth. Therefore, this year’s edition has been focused for the most part on topics related to natural science and the environment, though obviously there are also sessions on many other disciplinary areas.