Connecting physics with society

4 March 2021

Audiences never look at particle physics with the same eyes once they’ve learned about its wider applications, says Barbora Bruant Gulejova.

Student analysing ATLAS collisions

Science and basic research are drivers of technologies and innovations, which in turn are key to solving global challenges such as climate change and energy. The United Nations has summarised these challenges in 17 “sustainable development goals”, but it is striking how little connection with science they include. Furthermore, as found by a UNESCO study in 2017, the interest of the younger generation in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics is falling, despite jobs in these areas growing at a rate three times faster than in any other sector. Clearly, there is a gulf between scientists and non-scientists when it comes to the perception of the importance of fundamental research in their lives – to the detriment of us all.

Some in the community are resistant to communicate physics spin-offs because this is not our primary purpose

Try asking your neighbours, kids, family members or mayor of your city whether they know about the medical and other applications that come from particle physics, or the stream of highly qualified people trained at CERN who bring their skills to business and industry. While the majority of young people are attracted to physics by its mindboggling findings and intriguing open questions, our subject appeals even more when individuals find out about its usefulness outside academia. This was one of the key outcomes of a recent survey, Creating Ambassadors for Science in Society, organised by the International Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG).

Do most “Cernois” even know about the numerous start-ups based on CERN technologies or the hundreds of technology disclosures from CERN, 31 of which came in 2019 alone? Or about the numerous success stories contained within the CERN impact brochure and the many resources of CERN’s knowledge-transfer group? Even though “impact” is gaining attention, anecdotally when I presented  these facts to my research colleagues they were not fully aware. Yet who else will be our ambassadors, if not us?

Some in the community are resistant to communicate physics spin-offs because this is not our primary purpose. Yet, millions of people who have lost their income as a result of COVID-19 are rather more concerned about where their next rent and food payments are coming from, than they are about the couplings of the Higgs boson. Reaching out to non-physicists is more important than ever, especially to those with an indifferent or even negative attitude to science. Differentiating audiences between students, general public and politicians is not relevant when addressing non-scientifically educated people. Strategic information should be proactively communicated to all stakeholders in society in a relatable way, via eye-opening, surprising and emotionally charged stories about the practical applications of curiosity-driven discoveries.

Barbora Bruant Gulejova

IPPOG has been working to provide such stories since 2017 – and there is no shortage of examples. Take the touchscreen technology first explored at CERN 40 years ago, or humanitarian satellite mapping carried out for almost 20 years by UNOSAT, which is hosted at CERN. Millions of patients are diagnosed daily thanks to tools like PET and MRI, while more recent medical developments include innovative radioisotopes from MEDICIS for precision medicine, the first 3D colour X-ray images, and novel cancer treatments  based on superconducting accelerator technology. In the environmental arena, recent CERN spin-offs include a global network of air-quality sensors and fibre-optic sensors for improved water and pesticide management, while CERN open-source software is used for digital preservation in libraries and its computing resources have been heavily deployed in fighting the pandemic.

Building trust

Credibility and trust in science can only be built by scientists themselves, while working hand in hand with professional communicators, but not relying only on them. Extracurricular activities, such as those offered by IPPOG, CERN, other institutions and individual initiatives, are crucial in changing the misperceptions of the public and bringing about fact-based decision-making to the young generation. Scientists should develop a proactive strategic approach and even consider becoming active in policy making, following the shining examples of those who helped realise the SESAME light source in the Middle East and the South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies.

Particle physics already inspires some of the brightest minds to enter science. But audiences never look at our subject with the same eyes once they’ve learned about its applications and science-for-peace initiatives.

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect