Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
Ann Grand runs the café scientifique website (www.cafescientifique.org) and supports the network of existing and budding café organisers in whatever ways she can and wherever they happen to live. She started the Bristol (UK) Science Café in 2003 and attends it regularly. She has given presentations about the Café Scientifique movement at international conferences and workshops.
Ann is a Research Associate at the Science Communication Unit, University of the West of England, Bristol and is in the final throes of a PhD in Open Science and Public Engagement, looking at ways in which the emerging ideas and practice of open science can be a medium for public access to and involvement in the process of science and an innovative method for real-time science communication.
Café Scientifique, Science Café, Science Exchange, Chai and Why, STEM Café, Wissenschafts-café, Science in the pub, Science ka adda … It still astonishes me that a movement that started in a city in the north of England (and almost simultaneously, but unconnectedly, in France) has spread to almost every continent. Antarctica remains unconquered!
I’ve been around cafés since 2003, when I started one in Bristol. Like most café organisers in the UK, I wasn’t a professional scientist or science communicator (I am now, but that’s another story); I was a housewife, with a deep interest in science. I learned about café scientifique when a friend spoke at a café and was intrigued by this quirky way of getting scientists and members of the public together.
Back then, Café Scientifique was public engagement’s eccentric little sister: underground, unusual, a touch risky and edgy. Scientists just talking? In a bar? Ordinary people joining in? Although it has now become a respected and acknowledged model for science communication, the best cafés still retain that sense of existing outside the academy.
The first café in the UK was in Leeds in 1998. Duncan Dallas, a science television producer, read the obituary of Marc Sautet, founder of café philosophique, a forum for grassroots discussion. Duncan knew people had a deep interest in science that he felt wasn’t served by the mass media; he wondered if the café approach could work for science. He persuaded a nearby bar to host an event, convinced a scientist friend to be the speaker and crossed his fingers that an audience would turn up.
They did. From that modest start, cafés spread across the world. (A sister network already existed in France, where the first café started in 1997.) At first, the spread of cafés was person-to-person: a speaker told a friend or started a café themselves. Participants took the idea back to their home city; bar-owners spread the word about this new idea that might fill their bar on a quiet night. The Royal Society held a couple of cafés; the British Council picked it up; a Wellcome Trust grant funded a co-ordinator for two years and helped set up a website. The website enabled the idea to spread and cafés began to pop up world-wide; Brazil, Japan, Costa Rica, Australia, USA and more.
Since 2005, I’ve looked after the Café Scientifique website (www.cafescientifique.org). Like most organisers, I do this voluntarily; it’s my contribution to the continuance of something I enjoy and believe in. I offer support and mentoring for new café organisers by email and occasionally, if they’re close enough, in person. There’s a constant wellspring of interest in cafes; this week, I’ve had enquiries from Christchurch, New Zealand, Oalu, Finland and Philadelphia, USA. Last month, it was DeKalb, Illinois, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Lancaster,UK. It’s hard to say exactly how many cafés exist world-wide. Through the website, I know of 60 or so in the UK, a hundred or so in the USA, 40-ish in Europe. But I also know there are many more out there. It’s not unusual to receive an email that starts ‘we didn’t know about your network but we’ve been running a café in XXX for three years …’.
This reflects the nature of café scientifique: it’s an organisation without any organisation. It has no staff, no regulations, no branding, no product. We share a set of values and principles, interpreted by autonomous local organisers in ways that suit their local culture. Café sci is a very twenty-first century organisation: bottom-up, rather than top-down; a voluntary network with no hierarchy, loosely held together by a website and the goodwill of the people involved; its growth organic and evolutionary, not directed.
The pattern of the classic café scientifique arose by accident. When Duncan ran that first café, the bar’s noisy coffee machine almost drowned out the speaker. After about twenty minutes, they took a break, to give their ears a rest. In the break, the audience began to discuss the topic and came back filled with questions. Rather than his planned talk, the speaker found himself at the centre of an hour-long conversation.
“The model is beautifully adaptable to different cultures: it works as well in a café zinc in Paris as in a malwa joint in rural Uganda”
That’s the essence of the simple but robust café model: short talk (around 20 minutes) – break – then questions, comments, thoughts, opinions for up to an hour. The setting is intimate and informal. This puts the balance of the evening – and thus the power – firmly in the hands of the audience. People sit around tables, drinking and eating. A good portion of the audience perforce has its back to the speaker. Most cafes don’t use presentation software or microphones. Speakers are interrupted and conversations are as likely to be between members of the audience as between audience and speaker. The model is beautifully adaptable to different cultures: it works as well in a café zinc in Paris as in a malwa joint in rural Uganda. The nature of the venue changes the nature of the engagement: in a lecture hall, you expect to be lectured at; in a café, you expect to join in a conversation.
That’s not to say that every café is a perfect embodiment of these principles. As science cafes have come to the attention of the science communication community, I’ve noticed a tendency towards professionalisation, as the demands of the academy have to be taken into consideration. Merely calling an event a ‘science café’ doesn’t make it one. I’ve seen ‘cafés’ where the audience sits neatly in rows, the speaker stands behind a lectern, slides of bullet-point notes are projected and the audience uses a microphone to ask questions one at a time.
“Cafes’ USP is the informal, personal interaction between scientists and members of the public. Can we – should we – attempt to translate this to social media? “
This is the challenge of being without central control. Personally, the lecturisation of cafes makes me unhappy; practically, there’s very little I can do about it. Anyone is free to pick up and use the model; we just have to trust that people also take on board the principles and beliefs that underpin it. There are other challenges. One is how to widen the audience beyond the usual suspects. Although cafés attract a greater range of participants than other science events – notably, more women – they remain predominantly middle-class, middle-aged and white. How can cafés attract more ethnically and culturally diverse audiences? Should they even try, or is that problematic in itself? What about technology? Cafés’ USP is the informal, personal interaction between scientists and members of the public. Can we – should we – attempt to translate this to social media? What about broadcasting? Are webcasts inimical to the particular nature of café engagement or a great way to extend the audience beyond a small geographical area?
For audiences, cafés are places to talk about the scientific issues that affect our everyday lives; for speakers, a chance to connect honestly with intelligent and engaged members of the public and an easy, informal and inclusive way to let the light in on their work. But mostly, they’re just good fun!