In days gone by, individuals belonging to the royal court or members of the bourgeoisie used to organise private salons, where people would sit around exchanging ideas. Fast forward to the present day and we now see cafés abounding where ideas are debated in fora open to the public. The first to appear were philosophical. They will set an example for researchers anxious to ensure that debates about science are not confined to academia. A combination of exacting precision and spontaneity, the cafés are now springing up across Europe.
Sci Café, Ekaterinburg (Russia). The theme "Selling science to society" was unveiled by Susan Greenfield, biologist and Director of The Royal Institution of Great Britain.
Physicists were the first to embark upon the adventure. The whole process got under way in 1997, in the city of Lyons (France), during Science Week. It was a great opportunity, the public turned up in droves – and would return. "Many cafés resulted from two or three friends gathering together. Steps then had to be taken to ensure their longevity and independence, particularly if there was no special wish to be linked to a given institution," according to Pablo Jensen, one of the founders of the first Lyons café. "The initiative was topped off with a grant from the Rotary Club, which was used to launch the Mille et une sciences association, involving one appointment into the bargain. The association is in charge of all the management duties, while a tiny scientific committee is responsible for gathering the researchers and non-researchers together. This mix is crucial because, for one thing, it enables entry into the classroom, as it also counts teaching staff among its members."
Since then, the cafés have rapidly sprung up all over France and they generally opt for the same kind of concept. Several individuals with expert knowledge are invited to give talks. The fairly brief statements are designed to provide information and fuel the debate. "The idea is to seek to have a broad range of speakers reflecting the complicated nature of the issue in question. In the case of medicinal products, for example, the line-up included a representative of the drugs industry who was grilled about lobbying and marketing, a professor of medicine, a non-specialist and members of a patients’ association. There is no one truth. We are criticised sometimes because the audience has more questions to think about when it leaves than before it arrived…"
The microphone is passed back and forth. The atmosphere is very relaxed, and the coordinators help to prevent the sessions from becoming disorderly. The audience varies according to the issues. Health and the environment attract a very mixed bag of people, while mathematics and nanotechnologies tend to appeal more to researchers, journalists and people interested in science.
The cafés often stage junior versions of the events, held in school cafeterias. “This concept has met with a great deal of success," says Pablo Jensen. The young people pick the themes and generally facilitate the sessions themselves. Young researchers are the ones who embark upon this field. It is a way of showcasing science in a new light, demonstrating that research is a lot different from what they have come to expect from their school textbooks." ‘Youth-oriented’ issues may be conventional (GMOs, pollution...) or may include subjects reflecting the concerns of young people, drug abuse being a top issue.
The right speaker …
Science Café, Prague (Czech Republic) – coordination by Kevin Warick, cybernetics Professor at the University of Reading (UK).
Science cafés and junior cafés soon crossed the English Channel. Duncan Dallas, a chemist and an independent producer of science broadcasts, launched the concept in Leeds in 1998. His now famous slogan was: "For the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone may come here to discuss scientific ideas and trends that are transforming our lives".
Duncan Dallas is good at attracting the attention of the media and his initiative turned out to be such a success that in 2001 he was tasked with spreading the concept throughout the United Kingdom. All the cafés operate according to the same principles: just one speaker addressing the audience for 20 minutes or so. More often than not the speech is followed by a break to allow the participants to have a drink before firing off their questions and getting involved in the discussions. In Leeds, for example, a wide variety of subjects appear one after another every fortnight, and leading scientific figures have no qualms about taking part, such as Vlatko Vedral (quantum information theory and psychokinesis), or Roger Penrose, who has presented his latest work Complete Laws of the Universe.
… and the right audience Duncan Dallas believes the first step is to find "the" right speaker. "His/her role is to provide the audience with enough information to inspire those assembled to ask interesting questions and to allow the debates to get under way. Just as important is discovering a theme that stirs the imagination of the audience, such as a controversial issue, or a fresh subject, or one that has a bearing on the daily environment, or involves leading-edge research. The speaker is a catalyser but not the main ingredient. The audience is what we count on to guarantee the success of an evening. This approach has given tangible shape to a system for revealing the merits of science against a non-academic background."
The concept has recently been exported to all four corners of the globe, thanks to the British Council network. In a huge country like Russia, for example, various evenings have been rebroadcast via videoconferences. The audience generally comprises students, non-scientists, young professionals, people keen on the theme and on practising their English. "The debate culture is a fairly new experience in Russia," says Lylia Sultanova, who works for the British Council in Moscow. "People enjoy talking and putting forward their ideas about science, particularly when the issues have a direct bearing on their lives. They are anxious to learn, and are keen on theories and discoveries. The scientific café concept has been taken on-board by enthusiastic people wishing to get together to probe prickly scientific and technological issues. An interpreter is often on-hand to allow all individuals to have a say.”
As for the Danish, they opted for a somewhat different approach when they began setting up Videnskabscafeen in Copenhagen, back in 2001. The aim is similar (focusing on information and debates, contacts between specialists and non-specialists) but the interdisciplinary approach is emphasised by bringing experts on the human sciences and exact sciences together to consider the same themes. This cross-fertilisation of ideas can sometimes spring one or two surprises. For example, during an evening session of debates on cloning, attended by a philosopher and biologist, the one expressing the most reservations about the progress being made in this area turned out to be, surprise, surprise, the biologist.
Launched by the British Council (BC), the Rise programme seeks to bring scientists and the general public closer together via the medium of young researchers. They are invited to take part in conferences in schools, explain what their profession and work entails to an audience of students ...
The Bologna Biopop
Literary gatherings go back a long way in Italy, but science cafés took a while to take root. Florence set the ball rolling, followed by Bologna, where the Marino Golinelli Foundation stages this type of meeting at regular intervals. A series of ‘cafés’ was held in early October ...
Launched by the British Council (BC), the Rise programme seeks to bring scientists and the general public closer together via the medium of young researchers. They are invited to take part in conferences in schools, explain what their profession and work entails to an audience of students and pupils, and take part in science cafés. This 12-month initiative enjoys the support of the European Union as part of the Researchers in Europe project. Thanks to the BC branches spread across the world, these events can be organised everywhere. A dozen or so science café-style events were staged in a dozen or so European countries and in Israel this year. Looking beyond Rise, the British Council is promoting its café activities throughout the world – English-spoken experiences galore.
Literary gatherings go back a long way in Italy, but science cafés took a while to take root. Florence set the ball rolling, followed by Bologna, where the Marino Golinelli Foundation stages this type of meeting at regular intervals. A series of ‘cafés’ was held in early October this year against the background of the Biopop conference, where various debates on subjects such as GMOs and gene patenting were on the agenda. Standard and less standard questions were put to scientists working in the life sciences field. The questions surrounding GMOs included the health risks, loss of biodiversity, the interests of industry and the scope for contaminating regular crops, not least organic ones. As for genes, the greatest fear the participants expressed was to do with the risk of speculation, not least the exploitation of destitute people (sales of organs and blood). Another question, and one of concern to the European Union, is the lack of any harmonisation of laws on biotechnologies. We may also cite the eagerness of the participants to have a more direct input into public decisions relating to the life sciences.
"We started off with two key concepts. First of all, the fact that speaking about science to the general public does not mean teaching it something. Second, we regard science as a rich resource belonging to everyone. Consequently, we believe it has to be shared and decisions about science should be a shared endeavour," according to Francesco Lescai, a biologist and a coordinator of Biopop. "When we offer opportunities for the public to debate scientific issues, we are rewarded by a significant and immediate level of interest. We tried during these two days to turn biotechnologies into an opportunity for discussions and a comparison of different opinions. There was a huge turnout and the debates were quite lively."