Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Dresden conference: communicating science

The Dresden conference on materials, energy, and public acceptance is over - I am sorry that my report about it can only be partial because of my limited knowledge of German. However, I have been impressed by the attempt of the organizers to put together a truly interdisciplinary meeting, something that involves not just science and technology but also how to communicate science and technology.

In science, "interdisciplinarity" is one of those mythical beasts that some people report having heard of from a one-eyed sailor who had a brief glimpse of it while sailing through the Roaring Forties. But, occasionally, you can see the beast alive and kicking. This seems to be the case for the interdisciplinary program in science communication of the University of Dresden that puts together professor  Wolfgang Donsbach, specialist in communication science, and professor Antonio Hurtado, specialist in energy technologies; who has organized the conference.

The results of interdisciplinary work are always interesting although not always successful. Here, I think we can see the start of something surely interesting and that has potential for becoming successful. Here is, for instance, a picture of the poster shown by Adriane Schmidt at the conference. The group is doing a lot of good work, clearly in going in the right direction.

Apart from the communication work, the conference was all rotating around the concept of "Energiewende", the "energy transition". But we cannot have any transition if we don't manage public acceptance for the concept. In Germany, the energiewende idea seems to have gained some momentum; the very fact that it is recognized with a specific name and that is being discussed means that it is recognized as a definite possibility - even though, of course, it also generates plenty of opposition. This is a success for the communication of scientific ideas.

What we are seeing in Germany is a first step in the right direction; a promising start. In the end, we must recognize that doing good science is not enough any more. We need to become good at communicating science.


  1. Currently there is a film on the “Energiewende” on arte-tv in german or french, dealing with its various technical and political aspects (but EROEI not mentioned) – also available 7 days on the internet (arte+7):

    Up to now the “Energiewende” is heavily subsidized. There was much hope in cheap offshore wind power. But according to the film (technical) problems will make it as expensive as onshore wind power. I hope somebody investigates the EROEI of the whole experiment.

    1. TU Dresden had a lecture about the feasibility of renewable energy that mentioned the difficulty of replacing ~80% of fossil fuels with say wind and solar but didn't mention EROI either. ( When I attended, some woman asked about the concept but the reply wasn't really what I hoped for. The local transition townies probably heard about it, but for most people it seems a new concept.

  2. It seems to me that communication of engineering and scientific ideas is not the main barrier to overcome. Rather it is the communication of an economic/financial issues: low carbon energy will be substantially more expensive than fossil fuels for the short to medium term. In the long term, resource depletion and/or realized externalities such as climate change will cost a lot. The question for people is: "pay now or pay later?" (with the strong possibility that the later payment option will be crushing!).

  3. Ecological science of human population dynamics.

    If human population dynamics is essentially common to the propulation dynamics of other species and, consequently, if food supply is the independent not the dependent variable in the relationship between food and population, then a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population and, more importantly, why our behavior is so utterly destructive of everything we claim to be protecting and preserving. May I make a request? Could we focus now, here, on whether or not human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics alone or is the dynamics of all species, including human beings, similar? Whatever your response, please make reference to scientific research that supports your point of view.

    It seems to me that if we keep engaging in and hotly pursuing worldwide overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities, distinctly human activities that cannot be sustained much longer on a planet with size, compostion and ecology of Earth, then the human species is a clear and present danger on our watch to future human well being, life as we know it, and environmental health. If we can see ourselves to be 'the problem', then it is incumbent upon us to bring forward the best available evidence from science, especially when that evidence happens to relate directly to why we are pursuing a soon to become, patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life. A tip of the hat is due Rachel Carson for making me aware of the superhighway. Should humankind emerge from 'the bottleneck' E.O. Wilson imagines for us in the future and somehow escape the precipitation of our near-term extinction, how are those survivors to organize life sustainably and not repeat the mistakes we are making now... and have been making for a long time? Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    PS: Rachel Carson's quote,

    We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one "less traveled by"—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
    Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964)

  4. While the "Energywende" is indeed a great concept, it is currently in defensive in Germany. This article by Franz Alt says it all.,Der%2BKampf%2Bum%2Bdie%2BEnergiewende%2Bgeht%2Bweiter,95,a26443.html&act=url

    The Industry is crying that the EW is too expensive and that energy costs are too high and Socialdemocrats are worried that high prices could affect the poor. Libertarians in and outside of the FDP party dispise the EW and call it " centrally planned economy". And of course, the Big Energy Companies are also heavily defending their business.

    Also, the Shale Hype in the USA, with it's transition to "clean natural gas" is preached by some "experts" (like Bjorn Lomborg) as "better Energywende".



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)