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Science ‘is critical for democracy’, Nobel and ERC event hears

Image: European Research Council, Nobel Prize Foundation

Nobel laureates call for stronger interactions between scientific and democratic institutions

Nobel Prize winners have called for better links between science and democracy to help the former better protect and serve the latter.

“Science is critical for democracy,” Paul Nurse (pictured centre), co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, said on 5 March at an event on strengthening democracy that was co-hosted by the prize foundation and the European Research Council (ERC).

“Democracy is built on truth and trust. Science provides a trusted way of generating knowledge. It’s critical for the democratic process,” Nurse said.

He added that science is increasingly influencing society and that this means “we have to produce democratic institutions and ways of working that can accommodate and take on board the complexities of science”.

Ben Feringa (pictured second from right), co-winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry, echoed that assessment. He said that in his view, crucial elements of democracy “are freedom and asking questions and being critical. And this is exactly what science does.”

Feringa sits on the governing Scientific Council of the ERC, and he stressed the importance of its funding to both research and democracy, much as the funder itself did earlier this week.

Its support for fundamental research is “one of the best things that has happened to Europe, because this is the way to give freedom to our young talents at the universities and high schools to explore, to discover, to use their talents, and we will need that for the future to build a sustainable world”, he argued.

Potential for AI

Another speaker at the event was Demis Hassabis, a computer scientist who co-founded and runs DeepMind, an artificial intelligence lab acquired by Google. He said that he thinks AI “is going to be a very important tool for democracies to defend themselves” against attacks, such as in cybersecurity.

AI could also be “an incredible strength for democracies to accelerate what we already do best, which is innovate and do science and discover new knowledge, including things like truth”, he said.

“If we use it in a responsible way, I think it can help us with many of the challenges we’re facing in society, like our healthcare systems, making them more efficient, helping with climate change…and that will give us the prosperity in our democracies to strengthen and make them more resilient.”

Nurse and Feringa gave examples of how AI is already helping with scientific research, with Nurse saying the “biggest impact” in his field of genetics has been from AlphaFold, an AI programme developed by DeepMind that can predict the structure of proteins from their molecular components.

Hassabis said: “We’re just seeing a revolution in biology. I think it’s going to apply to other areas too, like chemistry, materials science, physics and mathematics. I think all of these scientific disciplines will benefit from AI.”

But all three researchers stressed the need for critical thinking among scientists and students to question the inputs used to train AI as well as the outputs the technologies generate.

‘World on fire’

Two Nobel Peace Prize winners also spoke at the event: Maria Ressa (pictured right), a journalist who won in 2021, and Oleksandra Matviichuk (pictured second from left), a human rights lawyer who heads the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 prize. They offered a more pessimistic take on technology and the state of the world.

“We have a world on fire right now,” Ressa said, referring to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. “Technology is the match that sets the whole thing [alight].” She urged a greater focus on the business models underlying AI tools, as well as their carbon footprints.

Matviichuk said that Ukrainians are “fighting just for a chance to build a country where the rights of everybody are protected, governments are accountable, the judiciary is independent and police do not beat students for peacefully demonstrating, like we had 10 years ago”. She urged fellow democracies not to “help Ukraine not to fail” but instead to “help Ukraine to win” in its defence against the Russian invasion.

This was supported by Nurse, who is serving as an ambassador for Ukrainian science and education. He told of visiting the country and seeing children’s art amid the rubble of a destroyed classroom. “This is the barbarism of war, of autocracy versus democracy,” he said. “Ukraine has to win and we have to help Ukraine win.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight