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The need to bring research closer to society

By Oriol Travesset-Baro, Researcher at Observatori de la Sostenibilitat d’Andorra (OBSA)

Recently I came across a report in which the authors alerted about a contradiction in scientific and technological research. Despite science and technology are viewed as key elements to address global problems and improve our society, there is an increasing estrangement between research and society.

The decay since 1981 in public interest in science related issues[1] and the recent decrease in the number of students enrolled in techno-scientific careers are indicators of the increasing gap between scientific community and society. By using Google Trends to examine public attention to “science” and “technology”, we realise that searches of these two words have been declining all over the world since 2004, except in very few countries such as China. These negative trends are in contrast with the increasing published articles and participants in conferences. So, why are there indications of disconnection between science and society despite the increasing trend in academic communications?

«These facts lead me to the question: How can we bring research closer to society? Before exciting the reader, I must admit that I do not have the answer, but I would like to share two experiences based on projects developed in the Observatori de la Sostenibilitat d’Andorra (OBSA) that maybe can shed light on this challenge.»

Some years ago we started a research focused on analysing energy behaviour of electric vehicles in mountainous regions. Despite we published papers and attended some conferences to communicate our results, our impact in Andorran society was limited. The way in which we achieved the greatest impact was developing a multi-platform application designed to provide general information about electric vehicles in Andorra (i.e. charging points, electric car dealers). The tool included a cost calculator to compare life-cycle costs between electric and conventional vehicles based on part of the research previously developed in OBSA. Figure 1 contains a direct link to the full application.

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Figure 1. Screenshot of the multi-platform application

Nowadays we are working in a project with the same philosophy. Starting by conducting a scientific research and translating results into a useful product for society in the latest step. In this case we are analysing solar potential in Pyrenees building rooftops. As can be observed in Figure 2, the methodology begins by creating a digital surface model using high resolution LiDAR data (1), then developing a radiation map (2) and finally extracting individual solar radiation values for each building (3).

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Figure 2. Steps in the solar potential analysis project

Some similar studies limited the project in this third step quantifying the solar potential (i.e. electricity generation for photovoltaic systems). We think that the results of simulations can be easily adapted and converted to valuable information to be provided to citizens through a web application (4) where people can know its rooftop solar potential, the economic profitability of a solar system or its environmental benefits.

There is a lot of work to do in the challenge to bring research closer to society but these two examples show that we can have tools able to communicate scientific findings in a meaningful an applied way to citizens day life and promoting their participation in our research in order  to move us in that direction.

[1] Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

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Are Big Data & Analytics shaping a smarter society?

Every day we generate a huge amount of big data, but we need to resort to analytics to make abstract information meaningful and get valuable knowledge from it. In education, learning platforms let us easily gather an immense quantity of data regarding students’ behaviour, interactions, preferences and opinions. When properly analysed — through learning analytics — all these data might provide useful insight on how to make learning processes more adaptive, attractive and efficient.

Are these techniques allowing us to provide better support to our students? Are we taking advantage of big data and analytics to help shape the citizens of the future?

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