ULiège, Factory of Possibilities

François Mélard: Examining science from the point of view of its social utility

On the shoulders of a living being

"The citizens of a territory have skills that scientists don't have." And for François Mélard, sociologist at ULiège, it's because these territories are going to be turned upside down by climate change that science must learn from and with them how to live differently in this house we call Earth.

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As a worthy heir to the teachings of sociologist Bruno Latour, his thesis sponsor, François Mélard is interested in people, but also and above all in the world as a whole and in all its complexity. above all, I'm working on the Earth's new conditions of habitability," he explains. With global warming, ecological, energy and social conditions are deteriorating, and we need to rethink the way we live on this planet."

For him, the diagnosis is clear: " We're learning that we actually live on a planet that reacts to our actions, as if we were standing on the shoulders of a living being," he illustrates. This means that, from now on, we need to rethink the conditions for renewed solidarity, and take care of this thin film of atmosphere that sustains us. That's why I take a transdisciplinary approach to my work: it's no longer just a question of social, economic or political issues, but also physical, chemical, hydraulic and geological ones

An " anxiety-provoking " situation, to be sure, but at the same time " extremely motivating, because we're in an era of revolution, as we were with Copernicus ", says the sociologist. A revolution whose cause is the Anthropocene, a new geological age marked by the decisive influence of human activity on the Earth system. But the sociologist wants to provide local answers to a global question. of course, the COPs are useful," he adds. Nevertheless, the solutions and issues will have to be local, because climate change impacts territories in different ways. We need to ask people what they depend on every day, and what's important to them. Because we'll have to make choices, and it's preferable for these to be co-supported by scientists and public authorities, rather than presenting the citizen with a fait accompli. Then violence will prevail

Local solutions

It has to be said that François Mélard is well aware of the importance and power of what he calls " situated sciences ", i.e. " those scientific practices rooted in territories and made capable of accounting for the diversity of ways in which nature is thought of and experienced by the practices of populations. "

This experience began in the Ardennes, with the creation of a citizen's forest management committee capable of caring for the forest. But also, and above all, in Fos-Sur-Mer, near Marseille, where what was once a fishing port has become a coextension of an industrial-port complex polluting the water, the land and its inhabitants. There, together with French sociologist Christelle Gramaglia (INRAe), he studied an unusual research project, the Institut Écocitoyen pour la Connaissance des Pollutions. the idea behind this Institute is to conduct research in collaboration with citizens, based on their issues," he reveals. And that's very important, because we need a science capable of getting in touch with the people affected by problems and supporting them in their quest for knowledge and action "

Local residents, local residents, users and patients have knowledge that is not usually taken into account by science or the authorities. in Fos-sur-Mer, for example, this knowledge comes from fishermen and local residents," explains the sociologist. We were involved in reporting on these new scientific practices, in which local residents participate in the selection of sentinel living species, such as conger eel or certain lichens, in order to provide a more accurate account of how pollution impacts them. "

For François Mélard, science tends to neglect context. we have too often thought that we could have protocols or environmental monitoring that would be independent of locality," he laments. At Fos-sur-Mer, for example, the pollution indicators initially used were designed for Paris or for the river environment, and were therefore totally unrepresentative of the singularity of the site."

The sociologist calls this approach " technical democracy ". Because behind technical choices, "there are in reality social and moral choices, values that are too often left in the hands of scientists and experts", he explains. Although they have the intuition that citizens have certain knowledge, they don't know how to take it into account. And this is where the social sciences also have a role to play, re-establishing this connection between citizens and scientists. "

The researcher and the citizen

Like a world in perpetual change, François Mélard defends a vision of science that continues to question its own social usefulness. It's an attitude he also tries to cultivate among his students. Each year, through a transdisciplinary environmental seminar, he tries to get students in sociology, anthropology and medicine to explore a controversial local environmental issue, where there is no consensus on the knowledge produced and the solutions to be found. for me, it's the role of the university to get students to think in situations of uncertainty," he says. We're used to providing them with stabilized, verified knowledge. But what will they do afterwards, in their professional lives, when faced with situations where they can't apply an established protocol? We need to teach them to cultivate hesitation and doubt in favor of curiosity and creativity .

It's a doubt that the sociologist willingly nurtures, to the point of continually questioning the researcher's place and view of the world. we are truly at the heart of the Fabrique des Possibles," he says. On the one hand, because we can't just observe nature, as we've always believed. And secondly, because we are not discoverers. Rather, we are inventors, i.e. people who come up with solutions to the problems we encounter. It's a huge responsibility, and one that now involves not just humans, but all living things. "


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