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Technology Communication

Dialogue key to promoting receptiveness to new technologies

Innovations can only succeed if people are receptive to them. While receptiveness to technology cannot be imposed, it can be promoted, for instance by engaging in a dialogue with the public about new technological developments and innovative technologies. To this end, technology communication must provide easily understood and objective information, address people’s interests, values, fears and concerns, and explore technology’s risks, areas of application and limits. By doing so, it can help people to overcome their instinctive mistrust of anything new, risky or unusual. The changes in the media landscape and the growing use of social media channels can also play a key role in this regard. 

acatech conducts critical assessments of technology communication trends and frameworks, formulates recommendations and develops a variety of dialogue formats. In doing so, its aim is to promote a constructive dialogue on topical technology issues between science, industry, government and the public.

Social media and digital science communication

Thanks to social media, it is now easier than ever before for people to access knowledge and publicly express their views. Consequently, social media are fundamentally transforming communication throughout society as a whole – and science communication is no exception. How can the quality of science communication be maintained and improved? This is the central question addressed by the joint academy working group on “Communication between Science, the Public and the Media: Importance, Chances and Risks of Social Media”.

Ultimately, future science communication will continue to rely on independent, high-quality and critical media. The media’s role in science communication cannot simply be replaced by the self-generated content found across social media. The interrelationship between science and the media is enshrined in Germany’s constitution – freedom of the media and freedom of science are central pillars of our democracy. There are many good reasons not only to uphold the principle of independent journalism but to support it financially – without compromising its independence, of course. For instance, journalists could receive public funding but manage the funds themselves, as already happens in the scientific community.

There is also a need for a debate on the quality of science communication among scientists themselves. While science communication should receive greater recognition as an important part of scientists’ work, it will be important to ensure that journalism is not replaced by self-promotion. The aim should be to communicate science, rather than to promote a particular individual’s scientific institution. The science academies advocate regulation of social media in general. While illegal content should be removed as quickly as possible, it is also necessary to preserve diversity. The project’s wrap-up meeting was held in Berlin on 28 June 2017 (a video is available on the project web site), the same week that the “Net Enforcement Law” was passed with the aim of curbing online hate speech. 

TechnikRadar – What do Germans think about technology?

acatech and the Körber Foundation are addressing this question in their joint “TechnikRadar” project. The TechnikRadar is a regular survey of a representative sample of the public asking them about their views, wishes, hopes, fears and needs in connection with new technologies. As well as shedding light on what people think about different technologies and whether they are in favour of or against them, the analysis of the results also aims to show how people’s general values and attitudes influence their views on technology. It is hoped that these regular surveys, conducted every one to two years, will reveal long-term social trends.

Innovative technology communication – new discussion formats

How can technical subject matter be appropriately incorporated into the dialogue between science and the public? acatech is using the example of chemistry to make its own contribution to this discussion. A joint meeting of acatech and the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh), held at the Deutsches Museum, looked at how to bridge the gap between chemistry’s reputation and its actual significance. The conclusions were also presented at the symposium “Experiment Zukunft – Wertedenken in der Chemie”, held in Berlin in September 2017. As chemist and philosopher Joachim Schummer put it, “Throughout history, chemistry and its forerunners have always been denounced as the devil’s work”. According to Thomas Geelhaar, former head of chemicals R&D at Merck and former President of the GDCh, and Marc-Denis Weitze, head of technology communication at acatech, public acceptance of chemistry is higher today than it was even 20 years ago. Nevertheless, because it is such a key field, it is still extremely important to engage with the public in a dialogue on chemistry.

acatech presented its findings and positions on technology communication at the German Biotech Days in Hanover in April 2017, arguing that the development and utilisation of new technologies should be shaped by a comprehensive dialogue process. The dialogue should focus on different interests and values as well as possible technological and scientific solutions. Marc-Denis Weitze also spoke about aspects of science communication at the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) student competition’s SynBio Day, drawing on the content of the acatech IMPULSE publication “Shaping Technology Together”.

Artificial photosynthesis: latest research and technology futures

Artificial photosynthesis is a promising source of renewable energy. Taking their lead from plants, scientists are investigating techniques for converting sunlight into energy carriers or raw materials. This line of research is particularly interesting because artificial photosynthesis stores renewable energy in chemical compounds, meaning that it could provide a stabilising renewable energy source.

25 scientists are currently drafting a position paper in a joint project of acatech, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. The paper discusses the latest research, scientific and technological challenges and technology futures. It takes an in-depth look at different lines of research and identifies specific further research that will be required in order to develop a usable technology by 2050. The results will be published in summer 2018.

Project leader Matthias Beller gave a progress report at the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker’s Science Forum in Berlin on 13 September 2017. He concluded that artificial photosynthesis is highly likely to play an important role in the establishment of a renewable energy supply.

Assessment criteria and appointments in the technological sciences

Knowledge transfer between research and practice is one of the key requirements of productive innovation systems. The academy drafted two position papers on this theme in 2017. The first focused on “Quality Criteria in the Technological Sciences”, while in the second paper acatech analysed and formulated recommendations on “Appointments in the Technological Sciences”. Here, the main emphasis was on the appointment of professors with industry experience, something that is becoming less and less common. Both of these acatech position papers are products of the project “Assessment criteria for the technological sciences and appointments in the technological sciences”. A joint acatech and TU Berlin workshop held in July 2017 addressed the topic of “Knowledge transfer between industry and universities”. acatech President Dieter Spath highlighted the close connection between innovativeness and knowledge transfer between academia and industry.

The workshop revealed that while technology transfer from universities to industry has been well studied, the same is not true of technology transfer from industry to universities. However, information about the practical testing of scientific claims in commercial applications can be valuable for technological science models. In this connection, acatech President Dieter Spath made the point that universities and industry share a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit from and rely on each other. A variety of case studies showed that many basic research questions come up for the first time in industry projects.

A workshop held in May 2017 addressed the need to talk openly about failure. The workshop “Innovatorisches Scheitern als Regelfall?” was organised jointly by the acatech working group on basic questions in science and engineering, the History Department of the University of Stuttgart and the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Culture and Technology Research (IZKT). The stigmatisation of failure can result in an unproductive attitude towards dealing with it. Analysis of failures can reveal the reasons why some innovations succeed and can generate new ideas. Consequently, an innovative society needs an open “culture of failure” in which failure is recognised as a valuable and productive part of the innovation process.

Dialogue with the public in Munich

In the “acatech am Dienstag” (acatech on Tuesday) events, acatech invites interested members of the public to the acatech Forum on Munich’s Karolinenplatz to discuss topical technology issues. Experts from academia, industry, government and civil society answer the public’s questions about subjects as diverse as the future of food, 3D printing, epigenetics and bioplastics. Depending on the subject, acatech cooperates with a range of partners including VDI, Katholische Akademie in Bayern and the World Food Programme. Information about past and future events is available at acatech am Dienstag.

((BU)): A panel of experts discussed sustainability and the importance of values at the acatech am Dienstag event in Munich on 14 November 2017. Left to right: Klaus Mainzer (Technical University of Munich, acatech), Friedrich Barth (International Sustain

A panel of experts discussed sustainability and the importance of values at the acatech am Dienstag event in Munich on 14 November 2017. Left to right: Klaus Mainzer (Technical University of Munich, acatech), Friedrich Barth (International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Center ISC3), Steffi Ober (Zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform Forschungswende, Federation of German Scientists), Thisbe K. Lindhorst (Kiel University, President of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker), Klaus Griesar (Merck KGaA) and Marc-Denis Weitze (acatech).

acatech and Katholische Akademie in Bayern discuss the impacts of digitalisation in the “Digitaler Salon” (digital lounge). In the run-up to the German elections, the discussion focused on whether social bots can be used to manipulate election results and how democracies can protect themselves against them. Klaus-Dieter Altmeppen (Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt), Tabea Wilke of botswatch (Berlin) and Andreas Hotho (University of Würzburg) discussed the power and limitations of algorithms when it comes to influencing public opinion.

Bringing together the different knowledge cultures of the technological sciences and theology to discuss creative approaches to the responsible use of technological innovations is one of the aims of the dialogue series on innovation and responsibility. acatech, the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing and the Institut für Technik-Theologie-Naturwissenschaften held two dialogue events in Tutzing in March and October 2017. Representatives of different knowledge cultures discussed the topics “Energy Transition” and “Genome Editing”.

In 2017, acatech and “Wissenschaft im Dialog” (Science in Dialogue) held the fourth training workshop on technology communication at the Deutsches Museum. What shape should communication on new technologies take, for instance in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology? Which communication and participation measures are required in connection with research into the energy systems of the future? These and other questions were explored by young professionals from the fields of science communication and journalism, as well as young scientists with an interest in communication. This annual training workshop aims to strengthen technology communication, which has traditionally not been regarded and treated as a separate field within the wider field of science communication

In November 2017, acatech and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities ran a Science Slam at the Münchner Wirtshaus. The participating scientists gave brief and informative presentations of their research and visionary ideas on the topic of plans for the future. The audience prize is awarded not just for the best research project, but also for the best performance. The event was hosted by chemist and poetry slam pioneer Jaromir Konecny, who has been developing this format with the academies over the past four years. In the end, the audience was unable to choose between the best two contestants. The joint winners were Béla Frohn, whose presentation looked at eternal life from a medical perspective, and Christoph Wiedmer, who enthralled the audience with his stories about odorants in toys. 

((BU)) The joint winners of the academy slam were Béla Frohn (a university student in Munich, front left), whose presentation looked at eternal life from a medical perspective, and Christoph Wiedmer (Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packa

The joint winners of the academy slam were Béla Frohn (a university student in Munich, front left), whose presentation looked at eternal life from a medical perspective, and Christoph Wiedmer (Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV, Freising, Munich, front centre), whose stories about odorants in toys made a big impression. Right: Event host Jaromir Konecny.

In 2017, acatech launched a series of public dialogue events in cooperation with the Münchner Volkshochschule. At the first event, held in December 2017, participants had the opportunity to discuss the topic of bioeconomics with forestry expert Klaus Richter, environmental scientist Carmen Priefer and environmental ethics expert Franz-Theodor Gottwald.

In 2017, acatech and the Zeidler-Forschungs-Stiftung once again ran the TECHNIKENTDECKER schools competition. Prizes were awarded to the best teams for investigating technologies in their local area. The participants made short, creative films introducing a piece of technology, explaining how it works and describing the scientific principles that underpin it. The winning teams from Regensburg, Munich and Sonthofen took part in two “discoverer days” in July during which they were awarded their prizes. A further seven teams received cash prizes for producing particularly creative films. The competition aims to promote STEM education and media skills in children and young adults.

acatech projects in the thematic field of Technology Communication in 2017

Ongoing projects  
Communication between Science, the Public and the Media (Phase 2): Importance, Chances and Risks of Social Media (with the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina) April 2015 - June 2017
Artificial photosynthesis: Latest research, scientific and technological challenges and perspectives Jan. 2016 - March 2018
Assessment criteria for the technological sciences and appointments in the technological sciences July 2016 - Dec. 2017
Technology Communication – Activities in Bavaria Jan. 2014 - Dec. 2018
Training Workshop on Technology Communication Jan. 2014 - Dec. 2018