A night out in a bar is all the more enjoyable if you can digest some science too. That's the lesson of a growing movement whose character may be local but whose reach is potentially global — and at a small cost.
Since last November, the small English market town of Settle in Yorkshire has added an unusual entry to its social calendar: a regular night of science debate. On a cold evening this February, for example, mathematician David Salinger journeyed from the nearby University of Leeds to discuss the mathematical meaning of infinity — hardly a typical night down the pub.
Salinger is not alone. In cities across Britain and France, academics regularly give up their evenings to join in with these Café Scientifique debates. And as a conference of debate organizers in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, heard last weekend, similar events are now established in towns in eleven countries, from Buenos Aires to Warsaw to Houston, Texas (see page 333).
Given that the first Café Scientifique was held in 1997, the spread of the events has been remarkable and should be welcomed. Governments across Europe have stressed the need to improve dialogue between scientists and the public. The café organizers, using almost no public money and with little central organization, have created a network of successful events that does just that.
But a little central support could go a long way. The British cafés built a network thanks to a small grant — £175,000 (US$315,000) — from the Wellcome Trust. The trust only provides money to kick-start such schemes, so another body will be needed to support the activities. This would surely be a worthwhile investment for any organization that cares about science communication.
The organizers also face a lingering distrust of their events from within the professional science-communication community. Sceptics point out that the events attract a mainly middle-class audience, the type of people who already engage with science through museums and the media. A better event, they argue, would reach minority communities who feel excluded from science and, more importantly, from democratic decision-making about scientific issues.
This may be true, but it also misunderstands what the cafés can achieve. The events are run by local people who give their time free of charge. Event organizers know they are reaching a middle-class audience and, by and large, this does not bother them too much. These are not professional events — they are the science equivalent of the book club, run by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts.
Even if organizers were more committed to reaching minority communities, it is questionable whether the debate format is the best vehicle for doing so. Minority communities often ignore the mainstream science events, such as exhibitions and festivals, that already exist. Why should the cafés, developed and run by mainly white, middle-class professionals, be any different?
Inspiration should be drawn instead from programmes that have been created for particular communities. Take, for example, the Dana Centre in London, an offshoot of the Science Museum designed to host debates about science and culture.
Staff there have produced an event about climate change for the city's Bangladeshi population. The issue is relevant to the community, as rising sea levels could devastate their low-lying Asian homeland. Realizing that the community was unlikely to cross London to visit the museum, the centre took its event — an interactive theatre piece — to a local community centre. The result was a spirited debate and a determination by both sides to run more such shows.