A pilot project in the Faculty of Science at the University of Geneva aims to strengthen life science students’ skills in scientific communication. In this article, we describe this innovate educational approach initiated by Prof. Aurélien Roux, PI in the NCCR Chemical Biology. His interview is a real eye opener on how we can make students more clear-headed thinkers able to deploy rational, seasoned arguments and compelling evidence on science related societal issues.
How did you come up with the idea of a “Life and Social Sciences” course for 2nd year bachelor students in Science at the University of Geneva?
During my biology and biochemistry classes, some students raised questions about scientific practices related to societal issues. For example, in 2020, when there was a vote in the Canton of Geneva concerning animal experimentation, students asked me about the usefulness of this practice in their training. I realized that some of the arguments they used were factually wrong. Indeed, students not only get information from university, but also through media and the people they meet. With other colleagues, we thought that if our students are not convinced of the relevance of certain practices, then there is a real problem of scientific misinformation on societal issues.
We then realized that we could not focus on a single question, such as animal experimentation practices in research or the educational framework. We ought to open up to more global societal questions with at least one component scientifically related. It includes, for example, questions around climate change, loss of biodiversity, new drugs, but also biotechnological research advancements to avoid the use of animals in industrial, experimental or educational settings.
We therefore decided to create this course to include all current societal questions, with at least a scientific component and bring in experts from science, but also from other fields, such as history, social sciences, economy, etc.
Why is this course needed today?
There are already courses at the University of Geneva that deal with scientific ethics, particularly in the Section of biology. On the other hand, in the School of chemistry and biochemistry, or in the Section of Physics, there is no such type of course. Moreover, the ethics course in biology is rather a lecture, less oriented towards debate, will debate is more apt to demonstrate scientific reasoning and the validity and solidity of certain scientific facts. That is why I think our course is innovative.
What are the educational objectives of this course?
The first objective is to provide a basis of scientific facts recognized as true by the scientific community and to explain how we got there by justifying them with argumentation and scientific reasoning. It’s not just a matter of saying, for example, that there is global warming, but rather to explain what is the strong evidence behind that links global warming to an anthropomorphic CO2 emission and to explain how strong the reasoning behind is.
The final objective of the course is to enable our students – which will be future citizens – to use scientific argumentation and scientific facts to position themselves in society. Not only in votes and elections, but also in the discussions they have with others on a day-to-day basis, in a family and friendly setting. The objective is to teach students how to use scientific reasoning in the context of societal debates.
How is the course organized?
Right now, this course is Beta tested. To set it up quickly, we inserted it into the Biochemistry course that I teach, because the class is followed by all 2nd year students in life sciences (pharmacy, chemistry, biochemistry, biology) of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Geneva. Ideally, the course would be offered already from the 1st year of studies, to tackle these questions as soon as possible. Indeed, later in the cursus, students have already shaped opinions by other means than scientific debate and discussion.
The goal is not to simply show or explain things, but also to help the students form their own opinion through the debate. That’s why we have organized the course in two parts: a first part (lasting 45 minutes) which is a talk given by an expert from the Faculty of Science or from other faculties of the University of Geneva, to provide some scientific facts on a specific topic, explain how these facts were demonstrated, how robust these are and how they were implemented. The second part of the course is a 2-hour debate, which generally involves two experts.
For example, we will have 45 minutes of class on the scientific data around global warming (what is in question and what is not in question), then we will have 45 minutes of presentation on human demographics through history, and finally we are going to have a question like: “Is global warming compatible with a constant or changing human demography, or are there going to be problems?”
The debate will therefore bring together, around a question of society, scientific experts from the University of Geneva, not to give their opinion, but rather to comment, argue, and help students develop their position.
It was very enriching and inspiring to have teachers from various backgrounds! » (student testimonial)
How are the debates going?
Students begin by asking questions. The way the experts respond may cause students to react, even to disagree. That is where the discussion really starts. How to defend my arguments? What are my arguments based on? Are the points on which I base my arguments sound or not? Which are the counterarguments that can be brought forward? The idea is to solidify positions. So far, teachers played the game very well by giving their opinion and arguing their position clearly, and by listening to the students. I think this is fundamental for the social debate because now we are going through a period very polarized where arguments are not really confronted nor the point of view of others are easily accepted. I think the notion of debate is something essential to be restored in society.
Why in your opinion does our society evolve in a split-off manner when it comes to taking positions on societal issues?
Ideological cleavages have always existed. I think that some of them are hidden from society and that they emerge in time of crisis. Today, we are all convinced, whatever our political, religious or other opinions are, that society is going through a unique phase with several major environmental, economic and health crises, which make each of us feel obliged to position ourselves in relation to major questions. Many people will choose to position themselves in relation to ideals or beliefs. That is dangerous because I think that we can evolve in our way of thinking and doing, thanks to debate and discussion with others, and also regain confidence in society and in others to move forward together. More than before, we see students who take ideological positions, in relation to practices that are based on beliefs or exacerbations of certain things that they do not like.
What I loved in this course? The open-mindedness and the disappearance of certain prejudices that I had with some topics. Also, a better understanding of how the world of research works and the points of view of researchers faced with societal issues. It was a great opportunity to challenge my opinions and arguments in front of researchers and in a very different context. Much more pleasant than a usual course. » (student testimonial)
Through this course, what skills would you like the students to acquire?
The skills that students can acquire are first being able to listen to what the other is saying, being receptive to the fact that the person is going to say things that may shock me, but make the effort to listen to the arguments and assess the value of the arguments made. This is fundamental, because there is a big part of the current divide that stems from the fact that people no longer want to listen to what is said by the persons they have assigned in an opposition category. I think it is very important to reestablish the debate and to experience it frequently at the university, especially in Switzerland where politics are based on taking a position by consensus and discussion.
The second skill students can acquire is learning to express their opinion in a clear and structured manner.
The third one is to be able to accept the idea that one is not always right and that the other is not always wrong, and that one can find valid arguments in people with a priori an opposite position.
Do you think that scientists should be more involved in societal debates and in scientific communication to the general public?
What strikes me is that science – in the strict sense of the word – is part of human culture. As such, science should participate in the debate. We should not a priori exclude scientific arguments from certain debates in society, on the pretext that they may come into conflict with morals, ethics, finance, ancestral practices or customs.
When we look at the evolution of global political systems, the presence of scientists or scientific arguments, apart from specific themes such as the current health crisis, has gradually decreased since World War II. There are today many more communicators – lawyers, journalists, political scientists – in the decision-making world than scientists, whereas after the World War II, the leaders were mainly from the scientific world. From my point of view, there is a loss of scientific communication that needs to be restored.
Still, I do not like the idea that science communication is only done by scientists. I think that societal issues – and we see it now with the health crisis – require a mix of different approaches. Sociologists, historians, philosophers, geographers, all have their place in these major questions, and it would not be logical for scientists to be brought forward while ignoring these other disciplines.
In the longer term, how do you see the evolution of this new course?
In 3 to 5 years, I would like to create an interfaculty course between 2 or 3 faculties within the University of Geneva. I would like to gather in the same amphitheater students from Social Sciences and students from the Faculty of Sciences, and to have professors from different disciplines talking about the same topic. It would be innovative from an educational point of view! This has never been done before. I think that our society needs this interdisciplinary approach, in an extremely broad sense, and bridges between different intellectual fields.
Aurélien Roux is a Full Professor at the University of Geneva. His main research interest is to study the role of lipid membrane mechanical properties in several cell processes, from endocytosis to cytokinesis. As a PhD student, he worked in collaboration with cell biologists (Bruno Goud’s lab, Curie Institute, Paris) and physicists (Patricia Bassereau’s lab, Curie Institute, Paris) in order to understand how membrane properties facilitate or interfere with various stages of membrane traffic within cells. His interest in membrane fission led him to pursue post-doctoral work in Pietro de Camilli’s laboratory. In 2007, as a Chargé de Recherche in the CNRS, France, he has been interested in how membrane properties affect the polymerization of dynamin onto a template. In June 2019, he was elected as EMBO member.