In what many are referring to as a “post-facts” era, where long-held scientific truths are met with skepticism and the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Health face potential cuts, the European Union’s commissioner for research, science and innovation, Carlos Moedas, feels there is still a lot to be hopeful about.
“I think this is a wonderful time to live and a wonderful time to create things and invent and study science,” said the self-described “techno-optimist.” “We are at the tipping point of something very big in most industries.”
Moedas, who visited the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Thursday to speak about how to improve scientists’ discourse with the public, ended up at Stony Brook after a chance encounter with Alan Alda, actor, director and writer, last year.
The two were both attending the Kavli Prizes in Norway, an award ceremony which recognizes scientific accomplishments. Moedas, who gave the keynote speech at the dinner that night, included a quote from Alda, one of the masters of ceremony, not knowing he was in the room. Afterward, Alda came up to him and they immediately hit it off, agreeing to collaborate in the future.
During his visit to the Alda Center, Moedas set out to learn how to better alleviate the paranoia surrounding science through storytelling.
“People are afraid of change and afraid of things that are coming because we are not telling them the whole story of it,” he said. “We are not telling them the important bits and pieces that these transformations will [bring] them.”
Moedas got a chance to practice his narrative and nonverbal communication skills, participating in improvisation exercises, where those involved had to think on their feet in order to keep the conversation flowing. In his eyes, unique teaching methods like this are what make the Alda Center an invaluable resource.
“It’s not about telling [people] what to do, it’s about making you live the experience yourself, and something that will never be digitized,” said Moedas, adding that he was excited to bring what he’d learned back to Europe.
On the world stage, recent backlash against globalization — from Brexit to President Trump’s proposed border wall — has created new challenges for Moedas, whose job deals with promoting EU-lead research internationally.
“I think we have to be able to explain that you cannot stop technology, you cannot stop globalization,” he said. “You have to embrace it and correct it and civilize globalization to create less inequality.”
He went on to explain that in this day and age, where technology is already so advanced, interconnectedness among scientists of all nationalities is more crucial than ever.
“When Einstein wrote general relativity theory, he wrote it alone. Last year when the gravitational waves were detected… that same article that proves that man 100 years ago was right, was written by 1000 different people from different countries,” he stated, adding that modern advancements in science were “no longer a question of one man.”
Aside from helping society to evolve, Moedas feels that cross-country collaboration in technology could be a useful peacemaking tool. In an upcoming trip to Jordan, Moedas will get to meet with scientists from Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Iran, who have put aside historical disagreements to work together on the only particle accelerator in the Middle East.
“Normally they would never all sit together,” he said. “So it’s creating bridges for peace through science.”
While the internet has helped act as a unifying force for researchers, Moedas sees the potential for it to make that research more accessible to the general public.
“Science today is at the tip of your fingers. We have to tell people that even if they are not formal scientists, you can do science today,” he said. “The involvement of society will be even bigger in the future with this digital revolution which is…democratizing science.”