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Awareness of global risks must be a component of scientific education, says researcher

by Richard Meckien - published May 10, 2019 01:25 PM - - last modified Feb 14, 2020 03:01 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Maurício Pietrocola Pinto de Oliveira - 10/5/19
Maurício Pietrocola: ''A conscientização sobre riscos deve passar do nível local para o global''

Despite the shortcomings and inequalities in many societies in accessing the benefits provided by scientific and technological development, large portions of humanity take advantage of significant improvements in the quality of life to varying degrees. Many of these improvements, however, come at high costs in environmental, social, and even cultural terms.

Research on the atomic nucleus and the consumption of fossil fuels, for example, led to two civilizing risks: the ever-present possibility of nuclear conflict and climate change due to global warming caused by greenhouse gases.

It is also clear that awareness of the negative implications of many consumption and behavior habits, such as the indiscriminate use of plastics and automobiles or the excessive consumption of meat, has grown in significant parts of the population in recent decades.

"The problem is that people are still basically concerned with the negative impacts at the individual and local level, without considering the interrelation of all factors on a global scale," says educator Mauricio Pietrocola, a professor at USP' School of Education (FE) and a participant in the 2019 Sabbatical Year Program.

Scientific education

At the IEA, Pietrocola is developing the project "Scientific Education in the Risk Society." The objective is to identify how students in basic education can be awakened to perceive the risks inherent in scientific and technological development, not only from a local point of view, but also in connection with global aspects. "Young people must be able to understand the risks, be aware of their causes and implications, and be able to take actions that contribute to minimizing these risks, not only at individual or local levels, but also globally. For this to be achieved, it will be necessary to adapt teacher training and curricula," says the researcher.

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The sociological framework used by him to characterize the current period of humanity as that of a "risk society" is based, above all, on the formulations of sociologists Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) and Anthony Giddens.

In the preface to "Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order," published in 1995 in partnership with Scott Lash, they state that "as a species, we are no longer guaranteed our survival, even in the short term - and this is a consequence of our own actions, as a collective humanity." They warn that "new areas of unpredictability are often created by the very attempts to control them."

For Beck, Giddens, and Lash, the great relevance acquired by ecological issues "is due to the fact that the 'environment' is no longer something external to human social life, but completely impregnated and reordered by it. (...) What used to be is today so completely entangled with what is 'social' that, in this area, we can no longer take anything for granted."

Late modernity

In the conception of risk society formulated by Beck, he considers that globalization has played a fundamental process in the diffusion of risks on a global scale, including the diffusion of technologies and industrialization in addition to possibilities and consumption habits, in a context in which globalization is one of the engines that he, together with Giddens and Lash, calls late modernity or reflexive modernity.

We are a society that experiences post-nature, a reflection of how technoscience has transformed nature into technonature. In this type of modernity, the central concerns of society change from the development and implementation of new technologies to the management of risks associated with existing technologies," comments the researcher.

He explains that until the middle of the 20th century science education was thought almost exclusively as a kind of qualification for young people who wanted to pursue a profession of a scientific or technological nature, of a higher or technical level.

"After World War II, scientific education is understood as more than a training for scientists and technicians, and that science and technology are much more connected with society. Then, a movement emerges to think about the importance of science for the citizen who will not become a scientist or technician."

As a result, curricula are being reformulated to reflect scientific education as one of the aspects of citizenship training. "For the past 30 to 40 years we have been working on curricula and teacher training with this purpose." However, says Pietrocola, this concern still reflects orientation towards good practices, "about what should be done or not, with science being a grading tool of that scale."

In his studies, Beck begins to show that the relationship between science and society is so complex that it is no longer possible to distinguish where one or the other begins, explains the researcher. "Certain social practices only came into existence from science and technology. An example of this is communication. Until the invention of the telegraph, communication was linked to the speed of the fastest horses. Today it can happen in less than a second." Beck also showed that the globalization process started to generate several types of risks, different from those previously existing, "risks that the very science and technology create."

According to Pietrocola, school curricula are still very much focused on risks and individual or local needs, such as the importance of using sunscreen, for example. "But if someone decides to buy a car for greater mobility, they will not only contribute to the congestion and pollution of their city, but also to global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the submersion of the Maldives Islands."

The nefarious consequences "are more or less evenly distributed across the planet". The researcher explains that this goes against the logic of capitalism itself, which sought to produce wealth in one place and export (environmental, above all) risks to another. "Confined profit and risks used to be the pattern, including used tires, broken cell phones, and other discarded products and waste being sent to poor countries. This confinement of risk disappeared with late modernity."


Pietrocola and his mentored students are working on two fronts. One of them is student-centered and will firstly map their perception of the risks arising from scientific and technological development. "The prospect is that the level of this perception is very low." Then, the project will raise awareness of the global scope of risks previously considered to have local impact only. The third phase will be dedicated to the identification of individual and group educational actions that can contribute to the reduction of risks at local and global levels.

"If we can get students to go through these three stages, we will also have to work on another front, which involves curricular additions and teacher training for methodological use." Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States already deal with the risk issue in their curricula, "but I do not know to what extent civilizing risks are being addressed," he comments. In the Brazilian case, he considers that emphasis is placed only on risks in which local impact is perceived..

In the second semester, Pietrocola intends to start working with teachers from a public school in the municipality of Osasco and hold a cycle of seminars on the principle of precaution, inequality, global warming, and other topics with specialists from Brazil and the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In 2020, fieldwork will take place in the schools, making it possible to see how much teachers and students are already aware of the issue of global risks.

Photo: Leonor Calasans / IEA-USP