25 Oct 2012   |   Viewpoint

Let’s go to Mars, not Strasbourg

With a month to go before EU heads of state will try to fix the budget for Horizon 2020, MEPs, the EU’s Chief Scientist, astronauts and a Star Trek actor highlight the importance of inspiring a new generation of European scientists

As the European Union debates the shape and budget of Horizon 2020 – its research and innovation programme that will influence the continent’s science climate for most of the coming decade - it should remember the need to inspire a new generation of European researchers through science fiction, science education and human space flight. This was the message put forward by representatives from the worlds of politics, research and science fiction meeting at the European Parliament last week (18 October) on the invitation of EU40, a cross-party group of young MEPs.

Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told an audience that included secondary school students from around Europe, “It is almost eerie how we can deliver what our imagination can think up.”

Honouring the presence of Walter Koenig, the American actor who played the part of the Star Trek character Pavel Chekov, Glover pointed out that technologies such as mobile phones, tablet computers, biosensors, and needle-free injections which are emerging today, were part of Star Trek’s science fiction world in the 1960s, and helped inspire a generation of scientists. Long before the iPad there was the, “Kirk-pad, Picard-pad and Janeway-pad,” Glover noted.

The world is built on science

“We are not yet at Warp 9 today,” said astronaut Frank De Winne, who served as the first European commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and currently heads the ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. “But certainly a lot of what has been shown in Star Trek in the past has become reality. The space industry is contributing a lot to growth and competitiveness in Europe,” De Winne said.

“We live in the science fiction of the past,” agreed André Kuipers, the ESA astronaut who holds the record as the European to have spent most time in Earth’s orbit. Kuipers stressed the importance of science fiction to stimulate scientific creativity, and to captivate the imagination of children and students alike.  And science fiction apart, Kuipers said the fact he is an astronaut today is thanks to researchers who enthusiastically told young TV audiences about science. “It is important that young people understand that this world is built on science,” he said.

A career in science can be very exciting, regardless of the subject you pick, Kuipers assured the audience. “I was trained as a medical doctor, and would never have thought that I would become the co-pilot of a Russian spaceship,” he said.

Come out of your laboratories

Astronauts are happy to put themselves forward as role models, De Winne said, calling on other scientists to come out of their laboratories and share the excitement of science. And he suggested that scientists should not be afraid to discuss their personal excitement upon making a discovery, rather than feeling obliged only to highlight the possible impact on the public at large.

To take a Star Trek analogy, De Winne said, “We currently live in a pre-warp civilization.” Life on earth as we know it today is not sustainable, and research is needed to change this and ensure long-term survival. Drawing inspiration from his time in space, De Winne said that the view from the ISS shows how in reality there are no boundaries on earth.

Kuipers also spoke about the view from space, and how beautiful the bright, lit-up cities look. But this also brings home how vulnerable and how limited the Earth’s capacity is. “The population is growing, but the planet is not. We have to find a way to grow in a sustainable way and give Earth time to recover,” Kuipers warned.

True Europeans

De Winne believes that the only way to retain the current quality of life over the next decades is through European collaboration. “Human space flight is a very good vehicle to start cooperating. Former enemies, the United States and Russia, have decided to work together in the International Space Station.” De Winne said the core group of European astronauts, based in Cologne, is a “core of true Europeans.”

Glover agreed that collaboration is key, saying, “Sometimes we are a bit too modest […..]  What Europe does is fundamental.” Take the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. “No individual country could do that. It is only through working together that we can bring the best minds of the planet here to deliver that infrastructure,” Glover said.

Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was never seen struggling to deal with a budget, but in reality scientific advancement requires funding. Looking to the current infighting over the size of the Horizon 2020 budget, Glover said, “I hope that the politicians in Europe, even in difficult times, identify that this budget allows us to do things we can’t do in individual Member States.”

Space, the final frontier

Mankind will have to go to the stars. “It is our destiny,” said Koenig. Evolution is an on-going process; humans will continue the search to find what’s out there. “We might destroy half the planet” before we get that far, Koenig said, but ultimately going into space is part of who we are. “Our purpose is to fulfil our potential as much as we can. That is the most noble thing humanity can do. Those are the building blocks of the future,” Koenig concluded.

Asked by one of the students in the audience when humans will go to Mars, Andreas Mogensen, the first Danish member of the ESA astronaut core, said, “Today, we are much closer to realising a manned mission to Mars than NASA was in the early sixties to organising a manned mission to the moon. Hopefully politicians will hear this and help all of us to reach that dream.”

Alexander Alvaro MEP (ALDE-DE), one of Parliament’s Vice Presidents, heard it and suggested Europe should start spending money on things that matter. “We should stop traveling to Strasbourg and instead go to Mars,” he responded in a jibe at the Member States forcing the European Parliament to maintain its costly monthly shuttle between France and Belgium while suggesting cuts to the proposed EU research budget. Moderator Katarína Neveďalová MEP (S&D-SK) concurred.

These views were expressed at a debate at the European Parliament in Brussels on 18 October 2012.The event was organised by EU40, a cross-party group of young MEPs, and moderated by Katarína Neveďalová MEP (S&D-SK).

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