Science programme themes

Sharing Science: towards new horizons


The Scientific Programme consists of ten scientific themes, as well as four cross-cutting themes, both of which are taken into account in the selection criteria, and which you can explore here below. 

The ESOF 2018 Scientific Programme will highlight and question the interplay between science and society, the conditions that foster scientific and technological breakthroughs, processes of expected and unexpected discovery and application and the wider socio-cultural environment - including the contribution of education, innovation policy, investment, and funding mechanisms and the popular communication of scientific advances, as well as the way various stakeholders are getting involved.

Sessions that focus on past, present and future path-breaking science are encouraged. The event will also promote public debate about science-related societal change. ESOF 2018 will be an opportunity to discuss the socio-cultural and economic implications and impacts of scientific advances from regional, national, European and global perspectives. This international perspective is particularly significant since, in the face of global challenges and the internationalisation of trade and political governance, science is increasingly considered an international collaborative endeavour; a feature that the sessions should seek to address.

To read the full list of sessions click here.

Scientific Themes

Sustainable cities, sustainable living

More than 70% of the European population lives in urban and peri-urban areas, and this is also the case for more than half of the world's population. However, cities and rural areas are undergoing a series of profound social, economic and environmental changes.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: How will cities and rural areas face their major challenges, including spatial planning, transportation, energy transition, data management and information flow, food and water management, consumption and waste, air and ground pollution, social and cultural ties and health?

Global change: challenges and opportunities

Humans are major agents of planetary change. Recent and foreseen climate changes, coupled with altering population dynamics and natural resources use, threaten human societies and the environment. This theme will bring together those working on all aspects of these questions, from the quantification of global change, through human agency in changes to the biosphere and the climatic system, to the advent of sustainable sources of energy, innovative agriculture and resource management, and the perception by and implications for our societies, including in terms of global governance.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: What are the causes of these changes, what are the consequences and are there opportunities to be exploited? What role does human agency play in processes of planetary change? Can changes be mitigated to reduce effects on our environment and our societies? Can we foresee climate-induced migrations? How will climate change our oceans and seas? How can we adapt and innovate to sustain an increasing population in a changing world with limited resources? Is the current global institutional architecture adequate to deal with emerging changes?

Science policy and transformation of research practice

In the last thirty years, research has been deemed an essential asset in achieving the goal of a knowledge economy and addressing the grand challenges facing our societies. This has come with a much closer scrutiny by policy makers, shrinking budgets, increased precariousness for researchers, the importance given to project-oriented research, the focus on short-term performance measured by metrics, the development of public/private partnerships. Simultaneously, many fields of research tend to be increasingly relying on large and diverse —and often costly — research infrastructures. Other major paradigm changes have also appeared: data deluge, open science, responsible research and innovation, citizen science…

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: How do these changes affect research practices? How do they affect research funding, research evaluation? Are research careers still attractive? How do we find a good balance between responsibility and freedom of research? Is blue sky research under threat? Are we addressing the needs of society? What are the mechanisms to support innovation and are they efficient? Can one compare the advantages of disciplinary and inter/transdisciplinary practices in research? And are inter/transdisciplinary practices competitive? What will be the effect on research and on the research community of political changes (Brexit, the new US administration…)?

Frontier research and exploring extremes

Humankind’s thirst for knowledge has led to the exploration of evermore extreme environments in the world around us, from the far-flung edges of the universe to the infinitely small, from the exploration of mechanisms of life to the abstract world that our minds have discovered (or created). The importance of knowledge motivated research, so called “blue sky research” cannot be underestimated, whether because of the proven efficiency of such research to open the road to technological breakthroughs, or because the will to understand the world we live in is at the heart of humankind.

Some of the aspects and questions which could be addressed in this theme: Recent advances in basic research (in all fields of science: the natural sciences, mathematics, physics and informatics, humanities and social sciences)? What is the role of basic research? What does the history of science and technology and science studies tell us about the impact of basic research (“useless” research) on innovation?

Health in our societies

The progress in medical research and the development of new technologies have made cures for many diseases possible, improved the understanding of disease mechanisms and the wellbeing of many patients with chronic diseases. But many of the new technologies such as imaging, genome based approaches, and innovative medicines are costly and there are big differences between health care systems in different countries, including within Europe.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: How can we make better health care available for everybody in the EU and in other countries in the world? How is precision medicine reshaping health care organisation? What is its cost’s impact? Is there a role for traditional medicine? How are patients, patient organisations and other actors influencing health care planning and research priorities? How is the ageing population impacting health in society? What role for Europe in global health? What are the implications for improvement in population health? How does digital health communication impact doctor-patient relations? What is the potential for “telemedicine” or digital medicine to bridge the health gap between nations? Which ethical dilemmas are appearing with the new health technologies, the risk of private appropriation of health related data, the role of pharmaceutical companies? The role of insurance companies?

Understanding divided societies

Cultural exchange and circulation of philosophical and scientific ideas are a catalyst for humans to cross material and symbolic boundaries and find common ground. But they also lead to the raising of new barriers of demarcation, and as the speed and intensity of communication increase, so do the barriers. A global acceleration of exchange serves to foster new flows of migration, dialogue and understanding, just as it orchestrates new forms of exile, miscommunication and conflict. The implications of tackling these human-centred processes are at the core of securing future societal and natural sustainability.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: What are the relations between knowledge exchange based on truth claims and belief claims? How can science retain its universality in a fractured world? How can social media simultaneously promote a homogeneous world culture and produce fractured communities? What are the mechanisms of manipulation of media? How does interdisciplinary research advance our understanding of migration flows? Do we need new mechanisms for the preservation and appropriation of cultural and natural heritage? How does research impact societal opportunities for action on cultural exchange?

New trends and technologies in transport

Our societies are more and more dependent on technologies of transportation: on land, water, air or in space, using technologies ranging from skate-rollers to rockets. Everything moves: people, goods and data. The understanding of our world is dependent on space technologies. This increasing mobility and more generally nomadism becomes a marker of future years. Transport technology is constantly enhanced in order to give people all the tools they need: safe, sustainable, silent, fast and practical.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: Which innovations will there be in the field of transport to face this massive demand, especially in avionics? Will the airplane of the future be an electric aircraft without any carbon footprint? What impact will smart and autonomous vehicles have? How does digitisation, including artificial intelligence, impact human movement? Is travel in space a utopia within our time scale? Will we see enhanced humans with improved walking or running capabilities? Can collective transport be re-invented to meet the need of a 9-billion human lives planet?

The use/mis-use of research and scientific advice

The contribution of research to policy making is increasingly ambivalent. On the one hand, in the past 40 years, scientific advice has acquired a role in most policy areas. On the other hand, especially in the past 10 years, the credibility of science has been increasingly challenged, because of ethical malpractice, lobbying by “merchants of doubts”, but also profound changes in society that are summed up under the labels of post-truth, or post-factual, societies.

Some of the aspects which could be addressed in this theme: Under this theme, we aim to promote discussions between researchers from all fields, policy makers, and societal actors, on several questions as the credibility of knowledge used for public decisions, evidence-based policy, construction of ignorance, post-truth societies both from political and epistemic perspectives, the contribution of lay expertise to scientific expertise, the role of whistle-blowers.

Sharing knowledge

Two very important aspects of the science and society dialogue are science education and science popularisation. Interesting initiatives have flourished, whether traditional public lectures, modern variations thereof, or digital means of communication (social networks, websites, apps…) Also, many researchers and research institutions have become involved in education, in particular STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, either in the informal context of science clubs, science fairs, competitions, bringing students to science museums and to research laboratories, or in the formal context of the classroom, where “hands on” investigation based teaching is promoted. Media play a large role in the communication of research-based knowledge. Now comes the time to assess the effects of this changed landscape on education.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: Should the ideas underlying the notion of public engagement with science become a paradigm in education as is the case with science communication? Is the goal to train capable scientists, or informed citizens? How do digital media impact the way research is communicated to the public? Are these changes impacting the professions in science journalism, science writing and research communication, as well as blurring the distinction between research scientist and science communicator?

A digital world

In the past few years, the evolution towards a digital world has dramatically increased in speed and depth. Today society seems to be dominated by digital infrastructures and modes of communication based on algorithms and data crunching, and impacted by the so-called bio-digital convergence, as two recent landmark events have exemplified: self-driven cars, and the victory of a computer against the best Go player. More generally, Internet of Things (IoT), Embedded Systems and Data Sciences are disrupting many industrial and human activities. The science behind the scene is new and exciting, bringing together physical sciences, human, social and life sciences, mathematics and informatics, and the social impact is likely to be tremendous.

Some of the questions which could be addressed in this theme: What is the contribution of basic science to the digital world? Has the digital agenda triggered new interdisciplinarities? Is “uberisation” going to disrupt labour relations? How do digital modes of interaction impact human agency and decision-making? What is the impact of automation for blue and white collar workers? Will complete sectors of the economy be transformed? How is the digital cloud politically regulated? Who controls data banks?

Cross-cutting Themes

Risk and safety

The notion of risk is omnipresent in modern-day society, covering a huge range of sources from devastating earthquakes and hazards, through issues related to the climate environment, polluted and degraded environments, food and public health, biological manipulation, pandemics, to economic and political stability. Risk is also intimately related to the notion of safety, the question of cyber-security becoming ever more important as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, concerning also the means of transportation. Under this general theme, a wide variety of sessions related to the study and perception of risk and safety can be proposed, including the question of the place of education systems, decision makers and the general public.


Far from promoting more just societies, it seems technological innovation is, on the contrary, yielding greater inequalities. Is robotisation threatening the jobs not only for blue-collar workers but also for white-collar workers? At the same time, the divide between the rich world and low income countries is greater than ever. Stark inequalities can be observed not only in the wealth distribution, but also across continents, gender, ethnic groups in relation to access to healthcare, energy, science and education, or political participation. How can science and technology be mobilised to support marginalised populations? How will ageing populations deal with new technologies? What forms of innovation can foster more equal societies?

Gender issues

Gender/sex differences have been a topic of relevance for a long time in social aspects of science, science policy and biological and health sciences. The many dimensions of this very transversal domain are to be questioned in the context of new or renewed research topics and practices, from biology, medicine, neurological and cognition studies, cultural contexts, to policy and many aspects of human and social sciences. For example, genetic, sex hormones and environmental factors, including cultural habits, interact in complex ways. The critical need to incorporate sex and gender in pre-clinical and clinical research, but more generally in biology is now acknowledged; but life styles and culture are closely co-transmitted in families and communities, representing an aspect that requires transversal approaches including Humanities and Social Sciences.


Ethical aspects of research are far from being restricted to specific fields. There are the limits posed by society to the development of certain scientific approaches and to their applications. There is the issue of translation into good practices in research and to their deontological aspects. Science, research and innovation are not value free and the advancements of science are questioning the core values our societies are based on. Transferring technology also transfers values; choosing a topic in research or constructing a collaborative consortium or advising policy in science are activities full of values that need to be made explicit. It is in this broad sense that ethics is a cross-cutting theme for ESOF 2018.