Geoff Watts reports on plans for a European conference to rival the AAAS
Two fixtures on the calendar of most UK science journalists - if not of a great many professional scientists - are the British Association Festival of Science and the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If a group of European enthusiasts has its way, this venerable pair is destined to become a trio, with the organisation of a pan-European get-together.
There is certainly a case to be made for a European science conference. The European Particle Physics Laboratory, the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the European Space Agency are proof enough that Europe-wide science collaborations can cut the mustard internationally. And if scientists in Europe not only compete and collaborate, why shouldn't they also confer? But making the case for Euroscience 2004 - as the first of these proposed biennial meetings is to be known - requires a little more than this.
The body from which the meetings will take their name is a relatively new one. The Euroscience organisation (self-styled "voice of scientists in Europe") was founded in 1997. As a forum for scientists and people interested in science, it aims to strengthen the links between research and society, to influence policy and to contribute to the "creation of an integrated space for science and technology in Europe".
Euroscience's membership, which is open to science professionals and others, is upwards of 1,200, spread through nearly 40 countries. The members already hold meetings, and the most recent general assembly took place last November in Strasbourg. But this was very different from what the organisers hope to see at Euroscience 2004.
"The real aim, not just of the conference but of Euroscience itself, is to build a scientific Europe from below while preserving our national strengths and scientific traditions," says Jean-Patrick Connerade, a physicist at Imperial College London and president of Euroscience.
The work already being done by the European Commission to create a European research area is a top-down exercise, driven less by scientists themselves than by the commission's apparatchiks. Connerade wants to see the process being steered by the scientists. It is a sentiment that he and his fellow organisers return to often in arguing their case for the conference, and for Euroscience's wider aims.
The chosen venue for the 2004 conference is Stockholm, the meeting will last for three-and-a-half days and it is anticipated that up to 3,000 delegates will attend. Backers range from Swedish TV to the Karolinska Institute, a Swedish medical research centre. Content will include mind and behaviour, climate and environmental change, science and ethics, and governing science in Europe. The idea is to present frontline science and to debate it.
"The overarching aim would be to provide Europe with a true independent platform for dialogue on the sciences," says Euroscience project director Carl Sunberg of the Karolinska Institute. "All sorts of topics can be brought up. They will be suggested from below, and can be in all sorts of formats, including debates, workshops and so on."
What the Euroscience organisers seem to have in mind is a European equivalent of the annual meeting of the AAAS. Do they consciously take this as a model? "In a sense we do," says Sunberg, "if only because it is the biggest meeting. But the BA's meetings are also very successful, particularly when it comes to science communication. So we would like to take some ideas from this too."
Connerade agrees. "The AAAS is a model simply because of its scale. But the European scene is a rather different one. The US is an integrated scientific community; Europe is not. We have excellent European institutions such as Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and the European Space Agency. But in the smaller scale research we don't have the kind of community of spirit that already exists in the US."
Representatives of Euroscience have, not surprisingly, been picking the brains of AAAS staff, among them Mike Strauss, director of the AAAS meeting office. Strauss reports that he and his colleagues are sympathetic to Euroscience's ambitions, and generally encouraging. But he warns of the need to be cautious in borrowing from the experience of the AAAS. Its annual meeting, besides being the product of a long-established body, reflects the structure of the association. You can't create these things overnight, he says.
An alternative suggestion is that Europe, with its many languages and national rivalries, would benefit more from a scheme to foster a network of national meetings. Strauss sees the case for this - but also the limitations. "Holding individual national meetings wouldn't offer the same scientific breadth," he says. "By expanding across the continent, Euroscience will get the advantage of a much wider scientific community."
Jill Nelson, the BA's director of science communications, agrees that it makes sense to look at science in a European perspective, but adds a caveat. "Whether Euroscience 2004 would be fulfilling a need in the sense that people are crying out for it is another matter."
The challenge, she thinks, is not so much to put on a big event in Europe, but to make it genuinely European. Much of the audience in any one location will probably be from that country. Another key question is media coverage: will journalists turn up in large numbers and get the science widely reported?
Regulars at the AAAS and the BA annual jamborees will know that they are distinctly different. The AAAS is the larger and plusher of the two. It takes place in one (or two) of the largest hotels in the bigger US cities, with sessions held in meeting salons and ballrooms. The BA's festivals are focused on a particular university, often but not always a campus institution, with sessions in lecture halls.
The audiences are different too. Both attract journalists, students, activists of various persuasions and a proportion of people with a non-professional interest in science. Teachers and older schoolchildren are more in evidence at the BA; the AAAS seems to attract staff from smaller or lesser known US colleges and more working scientists. Which, if either, of these two variants Euroscience 2004 will resemble remains to be seen.
Will this be science talking to itself? Sunberg admits that most of the delegates attending a European meeting would probably be professionals.
"But we would have specific outreach activities directed at schools and other sections of the public," he says. "And we might also have some components that the wider public will be invited to."
Although Sunberg and his colleagues have had meetings with the European Commission, no formal links have been established. But if Euroscience does collaborate, it should be wary of the European Union's weaknesses.
Bureaucrats can always find a form of words that makes even the most imaginative proposal sound dull if not incomprehensible. Their concern with the political dimensions of Europe can clash with an enterprise such as science, in which knowledge and capability neither recognise nor reflect national boundaries.
The likely success of Euroscience 2004 is difficult to judge. But, as Connerade points out, with the collapse of so many of the walls that have divided Europe for so long, the possibilities for collaboration are better now than ever. Vive la science europeenne!