An Open World: Bohr Conference 2013
University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 4-6 December 2013
In the 1940s and 1950s the physicist Niels Bohr dedicated his work increasingly to the idea of an open world as a necessary response to the new challenge confronting the world: nuclear weapons. In 2013, as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bohr’s seminal articles on his model of the atom, the University of Copenhagen will organize an ambitious international conference, responding to the political challenges posed by contemporary science and technology with inspiration from Bohr’s ideas on an open world. The solution today is hardly identical to the one proposed by Bohr (with limited success), but the challenges of today are of a magnitude that require Bohrian thought.
The conference has three central themes that link Bohr’s thoughts and initiatives to the world of today and tomorrow:
- Technological ruptures and political implications: At times, breakthroughs in science and technology are of such a radical nature that our usual manner of dealing with issues fails politically and new principles and procedures have to be devised. In his time, Bohr cut to the bone of the political implications of nuclear technology. What can we infer today about the political implications in our society of contemporary and future science and technology?
- Open and regulated flows of ideas and knowledge: Openness is a central principle with both potential and limitations that have yet to be comprehended. Because ideas and knowledge are at the core of many of the greatest contemporary challenges, the restriction, promotion and shaping of the free flow of these ideas is pivotal. Who gets access to what information, who regulates it, and is it possible to formulate general guiding principles such as the idea of ‘an open world’?
- Science-policy interface to ensure timely action: How can insights, warnings and suggestions from the world of science find their way to political decision-makers? From the very beginning, Bohr chose the direct and personal approach, bringing his mission to the world’s most powerful heads of state – and later on in an open letter to the UN. Such an approach is not possible today. Designated collective structures are most prominent on climate, where the condensation and dissemination of scientific results to the political system by the IPCC has played an important but also very controversial role. Similar forums – the first one on biodiversity – are in the making under the auspices of the UN, but, as the significance of scientific messages has become evident, political actors increasingly design such structures ‘backwards’ from short term avoidance of trouble, not to maximise openness to scientific input. We are far beyond any picture of “pure knowledge” travelling in one direction only. It is both a scientific and a political challenge to devise institutions and procedures for the science-policy interface; and to shape a public understanding of science. At stake here is the general relationship between science, technology and society, and it is important that this relationship is addressed in a manner informed by the highest level of scholarship across a wide range of fields. Emerging science and technology should be analyzed by specialists in each specialty in order to bring out the deep structural features that mold its potential implications, and in order to describe the best possible societal organization of the field. Similarly, a more general understanding of “science in society” requires assistance from leading experts from the social sciences and science studies. The goal is to develop an innovative organizational format to create a productive process leading to possible action.