In his dystopian novel ‘Brave New World’, Aldous Huxley depicts a society based on extreme intellectual discrimination. Scientific and academic knowledge is the exclusive province of the Alpha and Beta communities, who use their genetically-engineered superiority as a mechanism for control, segregation and exclusion, while the other population categories – from Gamma to Epsilon – carry out the operational work and perform menial tasks. While our modern society is hardly a dystopia, it does nevertheless have its share of intellectual and social elitism as regards all types of scientific knowledge, the language barrier being the main obstacle to a more democratic spread of knowledge. Moreover, with the advent of highly sophisticated technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), it is not impossible to discern on the horizon an even deeper split occurring between the scientific community and the rest of the population. This divide is manifesting itself with, for example, the rise of pseudo-science and the growing scepticism towards scientific facts among ordinary people. In fact, the scientific community is becoming increasingly aware of this phenomenon and a large number of initiatives are underway with the aim either of narrowing the scientific divide through the use of digital tools or enabling Smart City residents to become more familiar with scientific concepts. This year’s event in Paris to announce the winners of the 2017 MIT Innovators Under 35 Europe awards, designed to honour the continent’s leading innovators under the age of 35, featured a number of startups which have set out to bring science down from its ivory tower and into the everyday domain.
Science: the province of an intellectual and social elite?
THE SCIENTIFIC LANGUAGE BARRIER
Public opinion frequently associates science with geniuses such as Einstein, Newton and, more recently, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, thus perpetuating the idea that scientific disciplines are the preserve of an intellectual elite. And indeed, the practical application of science is mostly in the hands of highly-trained engineers and researchers. Most people do not find scientific subjects very accessible, not only because of the mathematical abilities and methods of reasoning required to study them, but also due to the prevalence of an impenetrable jargon.
FOR ONE YEAR AT A us UNIVERSITY
This intellectual elitism is compounded by a consequent social elitism. The wealthiest strata in society are often populated by those who have careers in science-related fields. This social elitism is also reflected in the exorbitant fees charged by many higher education institutes. At universities in the United States, for example, fees may vary between $35,000 and $75,000 a year. To study for a Master’s degree, you will need to multiply this by four, i.e. the average cost of obtaining this academic qualification will be around $220,000. And it will cost even more to complete a PhD.
Popularising science in the digital era
To counteract this burgeoning elitism, there is an urgent need to democratise scientific knowledge. This means both spreading knowledge more widely and making sure that it is accessible at more levels in our society. For dealing with one key aspect – the language barrier – digital tools may be extremely useful, as we can see with De-Jargonizer, a software programme designed to simplify the language used in talking about scientific concepts. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a mathematician who is an Associate Professor at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology points out: “Jargon really excludes people. It’s like a sign to the reader which says: ‘This text really isn’t for you. In any case you won’t understand it." She has therefore been working with colleagues to develop De-Jargonizer – a software programme that highlights the most highly technical terms in a scientific article so that the writer can endeavour to replace them with more commonly used expressions. Didier Schwab, an Associate Professor at the University of Grenoble Alpes in France underlines that “this type of text simplification tool has been around for quite a while. It’s used for example to assist handicapped people and children, and to help people learning a language. The new aspect here is that it enables the general public to read scientific texts.”
Dr Vivian Chan
CEO of Sparrho
Sparrho is making science more social - and our society more scientific
In the same vein, it is difficult to make the general public aware of scientific discoveries unless a lot has been written about them and they are attracting interest through the media. Another path to popularising science can be seen at Sparrho, a London-based startup whose co-founder Dr Vivian Chan was selected by the MIT Technology Review for this year's Innovators Under 35 contest in the ‘Visionaries’ category. The Sparrho platform draws on both human intelligence and Artificial Intelligence in order to publicise scientific discoveries in real time. And going beyond making scientific research more visible, more understandable and more appealing to the general public, Sparrho has also set out to create a tool for highlighting, sharing, and social interaction on scientific subjects. Sparrho is in fact a sort of Pinterest for knowledge, a personalised space for collecting information on topics that really interest users. Explains Dr Chan: “The idea is to allow anyone, like my grandmother for example, to understand cutting edge research in the relevant subject without in-depth prior knowledge. Sparrho is making science more social - and our society more scientific."
DeMOCRATISing space EXPLORATION
Meanwhile another startup picked out by the MIT Technology Review is working to popularise a field of study which is perhaps one of the least readily accessible: space science. In order to do so, entrepreneur Raycho Raychev has developed SpacePort, a high-level digital education platform for the aerospace field. The platform has pulled together over 125 hours of lectures given by internationally renowned astrophysicists, aeronautical engineers and university professors. Close to 5,000 amateur enthusiasts have already signed up to use the platform, whose basic aim is to encourage budding entrepreneurs to come up with innovative approaches in the space field. Users can choose between various subjects such as robotics and space medicine. They learn progressively, with content categorised according to difficulty. SpacePort is also partnering with universities so as to be able to confer certificates on those who follow the courses.
Science promoting the integration of migrants into the host society
Native Scientist: SCIENCE HELPING MIGRANTS TO INTEGRATE
One other organisation really caught our attention at this year’s MIT Summit Europe: Native Scientist, a non-profit founded by Joana Moscoso whose purpose is to give immigrant children a taste for science, in the hope that they will later become renowned scientists. The more general aim of Native Scientist is to help promote the cultural integration of immigrant populations into the host country and also to create social impact by promoting and exploiting cultural and linguistic diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The education programme which it provides is based on integrated science & language workshops that enable the participants to learn the language spoken by the teacher while also exploring science subjects and gaining practical experience and technological knowhow. The Native Scientist website explains: “We bring together role models and immigrant pupils to promote science and language integrated learning. Our aims are 1) to inspire ethnic minority pupils to pursue higher education and consider STEM-related careers; 2) to empower international scientists to increase the impact of their research; and 3) to build a community of advocates for diversity and equality in education and the workforce.”
These efforts to disseminate, popularise and democratise scientific knowledge are nowadays being assisted by a range of digital tools, with the ultimate aim of narrowing the gap between the advanced knowledge community and the general public and thus helping to build a more educated society. And this is absolutely essential if our dream of achieving the Smart City is to become reality.