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Text: Ralf Bodelier
Picture: Universal Images Group & Jan Nieuwstad (portrait)
The university must share encouraging figures
Many people regard our modern, globalized society as extremely vulnerable. A terrorist in Kabul can blow up a nuclear power station in the Netherlands using only a mobile phone. International air travel can spread a deadly epidemic to all corners of the world within a day. In short, we’re all doomed.
But let’s examine the facts. In Europe, the very heart of the modern, globalized society, the number of people killed by terrorist activity has been steadily falling. In the sixteen years since 11 September 2001, the day that Jihadi terrorism was so brutally brought to our attention, there have been some seven hundred terrorism-related deaths in Europe. In the sixteen years leading up to 9/11 there were 2,200. We are unlikely to hear these statistics on the evening news.
Dangerous epidemics wil occure more often. Gevaarlijke epidemieën zullen steeds vaker voorkomen. In January 2016 there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Angola and Congo. Like malaria, this disease is transmitted by mosquitoes. There is no known cure, but it can be prevented by vaccination. Of those who fall ill, approximately half will die a particularly gruesome death. The 2016 outbreak therefore caused worldwide alarm. Peter Piot, one of the world’s leading epidemiologists, warned that the disease might claim millions of lives on all continents. But it didn’t happen. In Angola and Congo, some eight thousand medical teams vaccinated almost thirty million people with the support of 53 international development aid organizations and fifty thousand African volunteers. By August 2016, the danger had passed. Once again, the media did not find this newsworthy enough to mention.
These are hard figures, produced by scientists and based on reliable scientific research. They are figures which could give us the rather uplifting impression that the world is not going to come to a dismal end within the next hundred years. They can also encourage us to continue working to make our society more resilient. There is surely nothing more discouraging than the belief that our efforts to date have all been in vain. Facts and figures which show the true picture must be shared with everyone.
“Scientists must take their engaging presentations to women’s institute meetings, village halls and community centers.”Ralf Bodelier
Thirst for knowledge
You could call it the ‘societal valorization of scientific research’. Or you might see it as taking responsibility for a society which seems increasingly willing to believe ‘alternative facts’. It certainly won’t be easy to share all data and insights with a non-scientific public. The scientist must leave the safe confines of the campus. He must take his (or her) engaging lectures and presentations to women’s institute meetings, village halls and community centers. He may well find that the audience here has an even greater thirst for knowledge than the occupants of most university lecture rooms. Occasionally, he might have to give up his weekend to write an opinion piece for a regional or national newspaper. Again, the response may be surprising. Rather than reaching a handful of like-minded colleagues, the article will be seen by a readership numbering tens of thousands. Taking responsibility for society by sharing knowledge is, I suggest, an enjoyable and inspiring experience. It will not be easy, but if universities and scientists want to do that little bit extra for society, a very fulfilling task awaits them.