When a small group of academics founded the organization 'Euroscience' in 1997, few would have imagined it could acquire the clout and funds to drive a regular biennial meeting, now attracting 5,000 attendees, in a major European city. The grass-roots society (see http://www.euroscience.org) risked being dismissed as a small band of Euro-wonks, although some organizations (including this journal) welcomed its arrival. But last week's third Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF, http://www.esof2008.org) in Barcelona, Spain, showed that Euroscience's sheer determination in the face of such perceptions has again paid off. Anyone attending the meeting will have been struck by the energy on display, the high attendance of young people, and the active engagement with the media.

Nature was involved in the meeting in several ways, and cannot claim detachment. Nevertheless, informal canvassing of opinions of other participants reinforced the notion that this ESOF meeting was both lively and — to judge by the European movers and shakers present — important. The attendance of participants from the United States and elsewhere outside Europe was also a good sign.

It is still an open question just how influential this forum might become, rather than simply acting as a showcase. That question requires the attention of the organizers of the next ESOF, to be held in Turin, Italy, in 2010. The science sessions in Barcelona tended to communicate what is happening, but not to address challenging issues. There could have been more heavyweight political figures in attendance, but there was a large turnout by representatives from funding bodies, the European Commission, and national and European parliamentarians. There were also substantive policy discussions. These included the first opportunity for European scientists and others to respond critically and constructively to the achievements and plans of the European Research Council, and also to discuss forward-looking scientific thinking of the European Science Foundation.

Critics pointed to an under-representation of social sciences and of eastern countries, and also the usual disparity in impact between strong sessions where the moderators had clearly made an effort to work coherently with presenters beforehand, and lamentable sessions where they hadn't. The lack of plenary women speakers was much criticized, although insiders said that they had had a high refusal rate to invitations.

The fact that ESOF is seen as an important opportunity by host cities is evidenced by the fierce competition already under way to host the meeting in 2012 — one couldn't move without being confronted by a Dubliner, it seemed, although the Viennese were vociferous too. ESOF can and should build on such ambitions to become even more significant for Europe's citizens — not least its scientists.