Thursday, January 10, 2013

Science Forum 2013 opened: Science of Crisis

The Science Forum 2013 was opened today and will be held until 13th of January. This year the theme of this large science event, intended also for the general public, is crisis. As the organizers state, the world is in a state of constant change and largely unpredictable. In the Science Forum, crises are described and explained by means of science.

In her opening speech, professor Pirjo Ståhle discussed the relationship between universities and other parts of society and analyzed some of the characteristics of the current innovation system in Finland. Ståhle showed that for researchers there are contradicting objectives. Research funding often emphasizes the need for practical innovations. On the other hand, evaluation in scientific community depends on high quality scientific publications. It is problematic to serve both purposes especially at an individual level. This concern is particularly relevant for researchers who do not have a permanent position.

Ståhle pointed out that the current situation is a direct consequence of the strategic decision made in building Finnish innovation system. One may characterize the situation so that the companies have a better access to results from Finnish academic research due to intensive collaboration efforts, but at the same time, Finnish universities do not produce high quality papers in top scientific journals at the same pace as some relevant countries in comparison. She also mentioned the considerable effect that the digitizing will have on the practices of research and education. This theme was recently considered in a report on Andrew Ng's talk on online education. Ståhle presented several conclusions:
  • The societal impact of universities should not be seen only through the collaboration between them and private enterprises.
  • Promotion of researchers should take into account and encourage interdisciplinary work as well as social and ecological innovations.
  • Finland should have a Minister of Science.

The Minister of Education, Jukka Gustafsson welcomed the audience to the Science Forum on behalf of Finnish government. Gustafsson mentioned that the use of scientific research results in societal decision making should be further strengthened. He stated that the Science Days support this objective but also new structures may be needed in order to achieve this. Gustafsson emphasized how the European Union has contributed in stabilizing our continent but that work on ensuring peace is still needed. Also the European year of citizens was discussed with the concern that unemployment is a serious problem. Minister Gustafsson concluded by emphasizing the importance of competence, culture and interaction in society alongside with mutual respect and open atmosphere.

Robin Goodwin, Professor of Social Psychology at Brunel University, London, gave a keynote talk entitled "Perception of terrorism and other widespread threats". He referred to the modern age of anxiety. As a piece of evidence for this, he mentioned a research result according to which there has been a significant increase in anxiety in the U.S. between 1952 and 1993 both among adults and children. Goodwin mentioned that the research on perceiving threat has been dispersed between disciplines including research on post traumatic stress or coping mechanisms at an individual level or community resources at the social level. However, most have not combined individual-level factors with broader societal factors. Few consider the various different trajectories that might emerge following a crises event.

Goodwin discussed in some detail the early research about the inevitable trauma dramatic events. A recognition based on this research is that not all suffer from an event in a similar. In some cases, there are even positive consequences such as sense of group cohesion, growth in personal mastery, and development of new strengths and skills. This variety of responses to trauma suggests complex processes of appraisal/perception. Goodwin's intermediate conclusions was that in the cases of crises situations, real world resources are important to consider.

At a personal level, one may ask whether the crisis has a goal relevance. Also past experiences of an event matter as they may serve as a reference point. A previously safe environment may make the shock of even greater but, on the other hand, they may also give one also psychological resources to cope over time. Goodwin mentioned the phenomenon of emotional contagion, i.e. catching emotions from others. He mentioned that studies have shown that general mass violence has a greater psychological impact than a technological disaster, and a technological disaster greater impact than a natural disaster.

Traumatic events may challenge beliefs about the world leading to changes in specific representations as well as generalized axioms, including, e.g., cynicism. The events may also lead to associated behavior, e.g., fatalistic beliefs. Goodwin discussed details of a number of cases including H1N1 and the Great East Japan Earthquake after which he conducted research on people's values, level of anxiety, impact of their location, perceived control over risk, and trust on government.

Finally, Goodwin discussed a phenomenon of relationship amplification that typically follows crises situations. On the other hand, outsiders may be rejected, even more than before.

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