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Autumn Symposium

Science and Democracy

p. 42-43

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Source: La lettre, no. 37, December 2013

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Image caption: Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

1The Autumn Symposium of the Collège de France, organized by a scientific committee comprised of Professors Jean Dalibard, Pierre Rosanvallon, Alain Prochiantz, Alain Supiot and Dominique Kerouedan, was held on 17 and 18 October 2013. Its aim was to analyse the intense and sometimes conflictual relations between science and societies, and to set an essential short- and long-term goal: ensuring a better sharing of scientific culture, and that the suspicions it arouses should lead to informed debates about it rather than clashes. The five sessions offered over the two days successively addressed the following issues: science, expertise and public ­opinion; knowledge, politics and democracy in countries of the global South; innovation, research freedom and society’s choices; scientific debates and political decisions on issues of climate change; and finally, science and politics with regard to institutions.

2There is a long list of areas in which scientists’ claims no longer go unchallenged: GMOs, shale gas, nuclear energy, climate change, stem cell research, efficacy of drugs. Admittedly, uncertainties and controversies do exist within the scientific field itself, in several domains. However, more problematically and far more broadly, the notion of expertise is increasingly being discredited in society at large, and tends to be understood only in relation to the undifferentiated field of opinions. The structural indeterminacy introduced by broad interpretations of the concept of precaution also plays a part here, as it amounts to making all technological decisions a matter of insurmountable uncertainty. The fact that the notion of authority is being undermined in a democratic world underpinned by the principle of accountability and by the equa­l­ity­ of all voices is another factor at play. Nothing is more urgent now than resolving this deadlock in the opposition between uncertainty, on the one hand, and relativism, on the other. We must bring science into democracy, and simultaneously make the structures and rules of the scientific world better known. This is the only way to restore the image of science in the public’s mind.

Autumn Symposium

Scientific Temporality, Political Temporality

Democracies struggle to think in the long term. Why is this a problem?

If the concern for the long-term future in democracy is so fundamental, it is because, in many respects, we are faced with challenges that are entirely unprecedented in human history, – global warming is perhaps the most spectacular example. This is not merely a matter of honest and responsible management of the planet, as those in charge of the large public forest domains, for example, had envisaged. What we need to take into consideration is the issue of a world that can be fundamentally altered for future generations. The climate shows us that scientific knowledge calls for a radically different perspective on the long-term future. In a way, scientific knowledge is alarming. In their own way, scientists are whistleblowers, and they must be taken very seriously. How? By starting to think about the types of institution, education and public deliberation that integrate the concern for the long-term future more fully into citizens’ everyday lives.

How can we integrate a long-term vision into our societies?

In most countries, this question started to become a matter of concern by the late nineteenth century. The first answer was to argue that the bias towards short-term priorities was ultimately due to the fact that people elected their representatives on impulse and with respect to short-term interest. There should therefore be other elected representatives who focus on the future and on long-term interests. This echoes similar proposals that were made at one stage, to create second chambers and to transform the role of the Senate so that it represented future generations, while the Chambre des Députés would still have to represent the current gener­ation. We can now see, however, that this vision was rather narrow. The issue of integrating the long term into democracy can also be tackled outside the electoral world. Other paths can be explored; these are the ones I am studying. A first option would simply consist in giving the long-term future greater weight in our calculations. Long-term and short-term interests could be articulated more effectively if more value were attributed to the former. Yet the long-term future does not currently have a value. We do not integrate it into our way of calculating. Why not change our way of calculating, our reasoning, one could ask; for if we fail to value the future, generations to come will pay the price of a seriously deteriorated present. Democracy does not simply mean thinking about immediate decisions. It means building a collective history, which is also a form of humanity, and humanity is a figure that exists over time, not only a figure of the present.

3Transcription of the interview with Prof. Pierre Rosanvallon

• Listen to the 4-minute interviews with Serge Haroche, Steven Chu, Marc Fontecave, Alain Prochiantz, Dominique Pestre, Jean Jouzel and Yves Bréchet are available on

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Pierre ROSANVALLON, « Science and Democracy », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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