Ethics and Polemics - Learning to participate in the scientific debate


‘To promote public debates among secondary school students, lifelong learning people and experts on the critical, ethical and interdisciplinary components of “in action” science, in order to enhance participation and to reduce the distance between young people and science’.

2007  public debate   ©  National Dept. for Civil Protection

Argument for inclusion

Interdisciplinary approach aimed at critical thinking applied to controversial issues. Participative methodologies. Social research on perception of science and its values.

Relevant information in short

Main Research Partners

Institute of Research on Population and Social Policies of the Italian National Research Council (IRPPS-CNR), Institute for Electromagnetic Environmental Sensing of the Italian National Research Council (IREA-CNR), Institute of Research on Enterprises and Development (CERIS-CNR), & British Council.

Educational partners

5-10 upper secondary schools and 1-2 lower secondary schools, depending on the year and the issues

Other partners

Italian and English scientists and experts, different sponsors depending on the issue chosen every year (in 2006, the Rome for Kyoto Agency, in 2007 the National Dept. for Civil Protection,….)

Age classes

From 12 to 18, but mainly 16-17 year old students

Thematic orientation


Main Focus

To stress the social and ethical components of science through debates on controversial issues.

Duration of activity

Since 2000


funded by IRPPS-CNR, British Council, different partners and sponsors


Contact person

Adriana Valente, IRPPS-CNR.

Context and conditions

The Perception and Awareness of Science (PAS) Project started when the British Council contacted the CNR institute asking for help to organise a bilingual conference on controversial scientific issues,  and the proposal was transformed into a REC project, where the participation of students and teachers is not taken for granted but carefully prepared, and where the CNR researchers collect useful data concerning science communication and teenagers attitudes and competences on the issue debated.

Activities and Contents

Within the PAS Project, every year, initiatives for a public debate of scientific controversial issues were held in different Italian towns (mainly in Rome, but also in Bologna, Naples and Milan, when possible with teleconference link). The issues chosen were Genetic Modified Organisms  (2002-2003), electromagnetic pollution (2003-2004), space exploration (2004-2005), the impact of climate change on cities (2006-2007), the fresh water crisis (2007-2008). Depending on the issue, new partners and/or sponsors come into the projectevery year.


The students groups often coincide with their normal school classes and emphasis is placed on supporting an informed dialogue between students to create tacit understanding and “collective wisdom”. In this process, teachersplay the role of tutors promoting study and discussion activities before taking part in the debate with scientists, experts, stakeholders and administrators. In the last two years a new element, the one of ‘participation’ has been added to the research project on students’ perceptions of science accompanying the REC.


Participative techniques

Participative techniques’, inspired to local Agenda 21 experiences, have been investigated as possible useful methodologies to enhance interaction in classroom and to prepare the students to take an active part in the political and decision-making process.

Two other steps have been added to the proposed activities:

- before reading the information material,  students have been invited to explore their own tacit knowledge using the ‘meta-plan’ technique in order to express their concerns and their views on the issue proposed;

- “follow up” meetings have been organized after the public debate, consisting of participative events (restricted round table or focus group or ‘open space technology’ – OST meetings 1) among students, teachers, scientists and administrators in which the deliberative/proposal aspect was emphasized.

Students presenting their debate products ©IPPS CNR

1OST is a meeting methodology. It is also a philosophy and a life practice. It has been widely copied and adapted. According to its founders, these adaptations are fair, as the essential core that determines whether something is "open space or not" is "the invitation to take responsibility for discussing your passion". When participants do so, the needs of both the individual and the collective are supposedly met  (Wikipedia, )

Curriculum relevance: the school benefits

Teachers of different upper secondary schools (lyceum, technical schools, vocational schools) and of lower secondary schools, appreciated the PAS project because it requires a limited amount of time (5-8 lessons time + conferences), it is easy to manage and provides opportunities for different teachers to work together in different subjects. In effect not only Science or English teachers are involved, but also Italian language or Technical teachers take part in the activities. The project in fact allows the teachers to enrich the normal school lessons and to involve students in a real debate, concerning the every day relevance of scientific issues.

Feedback / evaluation / research

Being a research project on ‘Science communication’, every year a survey on perception of science and its values (with two questionnaires before and after each initiative) is carried on. Gender differences, changes in attitudes concerning specific issues, competences enhancement, are discussed within the CNR research group and with the teachers, in relation with the kind of school, with the socio-cultural background, with the interest and involvement into the debate.
The PAS Project revealed that:

  1. to participate in a scientific debate, knowledge is important but only when it is critical, problematic and interdisciplinary;
  2. within a linear model of public communication of science, it is difficult for young people to become aware that they can be an important part in the scientific debate: communication of science, as every communication process, should be a ‘two way process’ .

Limits and possibilities

It is not easy to really represent the different points of view of science: much effort must be directed on the selection of the documentation and experts, and on the moderation of the debate.
The number of schools, and of students, that can actively participate is limited by the need to have an affordable and fair public debate: teleconference links or email questions seem not have the same impact as the participation in a real debate.
The project, consisting of modular steps, and with every year changing contents, seems easy to insert in the Italian science curricula.
The research results are useful both for the development of better science communication and for science education methodologies.


A. Valente (Ed.), La scienza dagli esperti ai giovani e ritorno/ Science: from specialists to students and back again, Biblink, Roma, 2006.
L. Libutti, A. Valente, Science communication and information dissemination: The role of the information professional in the “Perception and Awareness of Science” Project”, Journal of information science, 32(2), 2006
A. Valente, M. C. Brandi, L.Cerbara, M. Misiti, Youth and Science in Italy: between enthusiasm and indifference, Journal of Science Communication (Jcom), giugno 2005, vol. 4 (2).

The project is realised with the cooperation of experts and participants inside and outside the National Research Council. Inside the CNR, the work team is the following: Adriana Valente, coordinator,  Sveva Avveduto, Maria Girolama Caruso, Loredana Cerbara, Luciana Libutti, (IRPPS-CNR), Emanuela Reale  (CERIS-CNR), Alba L'Astorina (IREA-CNR). Tecnical organizative staff: Cristiana Crescimbene, Maria Giovanna Felici, Laura Sperandio(IRPPS-CNR).