Mamma Mia! How could you resist this rendezvous?

September 10, 2004

Heavy on policy and light on UK attendance, the first Euroscience Open Forum Conference was never-theless a success, says Pete Wrobe.

Whether it was a wish for somewhere hotter and drier in August or a more deep-seated scepticism about the venture, just 138 Brits made it to the first, and rain-drenched, Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference in Stockholm. Even so, the UK had the third largest contingent, behind Germany with 185 and Sweden with 655. Just four Greeks abandoned the Olympics for Stockholm, and only five people made it over from Ireland (the same number as registered from Indonesia). Yet the total added up to almost 1,800; the organisers had been aiming for 1,500. Similar general science conferences in the US and Britain have been running for more than a century; this was Europe's first attempt.

Euroscience was founded seven years ago, and has been working ever since to get a pan-European meeting off the ground. It has been a long road. The organisation has had to build up its membership and overcome suspicions. Euroscience insiders say it took five years to convince those at the European Commission to support a conference organised by someone other than themselves. Once involved, though, the commission took part with gusto, sponsoring the conference to the tune of €500,000 (£340,000) and running seminars on journalism and women in science.

The UK's financial contribution to the conference was less noticeable. None of the big funders of science communication - the Office of Science and Technology, the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society or the research councils - had its name on the lists of donors, and the absence was noticed. On the other hand, the main UK players sent representatives, even if not at the highest level.

The opening ceremony quickly established a new paradigm for general science conferences. Instead of the usual long speeches, there were two short ones, followed by a slide show of Stockholm with a strange musical accompaniment by former Abba star Benny Andersson (the one with the beard). Next came a panel discussion featuring, among others, Rainer Gerold, head of the Science and Society programme at the commission. The panellists started with discussions on making Europe a leader in science and technology, the need for a European Research Council, why "we need as strong a lobby for science as we have for agriculture" (as Gerold said, rather provocatively for an European Union official), and a few jibes about lack of funding (no names, but they meant the UK, France, Spain and Italy). Then on trooped a choir of Swedish girls in white shirts and scarlet embroidered belts. When the panel returned, almost all they could talk about was press coverage. In the world of general science conferences, the media is the measure.

Gerold is keen to see Euroscience maintain a European, rather than a narrow European Union, focus. "The agenda should influence cross-border cooperation regardless of what the EU does," he says. Amid all the discussion of the need for a European Research Council, Gerold is aware that the principal European research bodies - such as the European Space Agency, European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg and Cern, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva -are not part of the machinery of the EU.

Industrial sponsors included Johnson & Johnson. Seema Kumar, the company's representative, who had been expecting "a lot of stimulating electricity and presentation of discoveries", is a little disappointed. But she concedes that it is hard to start with a big bang. Would the company come back and support the next conference? "We would probably want to be involved one more time," she says. "But we would want to see maybe a little bit more focus on areas of interest to the industrial research and development environment."

The journal Nature organised two sessions - on climate change and infectious disease - and editor Philip Campbell says the quality of the questions was "really good - panellists were challenged". Campbell is a Euroscience member and says that the organisation is about "bottom-up access to science and thinking about science - and that is happening in the sessions".

Ruth Neiland, a plant ecologist from Aberdeen University, was one of the Britons to make the journey to Stockholm [a group that included journalists, speakers, exhibition staff and paying entrants]. She compares the ESOF with the Europe of Knowledge conference in Liège, Belgium, this April. "There are quite a few people here that I met in Li ge, but this conference is more diverse - and there are a lot of outside events."

Others who are impressed include Douglas Parr, chief scientific officer for Greenpeace. He says the dialogue was "more relevant than at the annual meeting of the BA (the British Association for the Advancement of Science)", and that while the BA seemed to have a sense of artificiality, with "two separate events -a press event and a public event", Euroscience combined the two.

The big comparator, though, is the US, where 6,000 attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Some, such as the German funding body Stifterverband, see Euroscience as a "serious counterbalance" to the AAAS. Others take inspiration from it, and seek to be as successful as the Americans. The AAAS itself was keenly interested. It sent over a reporter, a large team of communications specialists, and its chief executive, Alan Leshner. Shere Abbott, the AAAS's chief international officer, says: "The idea of Euroscience is a very good one. I'm impressed with the enthusiasm. People have been very much engaged." With 13,000 members in Europe, the AAAS is keen not to be seen as solely an American outfit, and it gave a fair amount of assistance on the logistics of organisation. "If there's a request for assistance at the next conference, we will be involved," she says, adding: "We don't want to make it look like we're Americans telling you how to do things."

Abbott says she was surprised, though, by the amount of policy discussion. Nineteen of the 69 sessions dealt with European science policy, closely followed by science communication issues with 15 sessions - leaving little space for topics that grab the public eye, such as "New fixed teeth in 30 minutes".

Sheila Anderson from the Natural Environment Research Council would like to see more cross-border discussion about the way we approve research at the next conference. "People stayed in their boxes, with national perspectives," she says.

The public science events downtown were doing brisk business, but little of their youthful enthusiasm was evident in the main conference venues. Only 75 children attended sessions as part of school trips, and just 15 teachers registered for the conference.

By contrast, there were journalists aplenty - 349 by the end of the conference. But the numbers obscured huge differences in interest. Germany dispatched about 80 journalists to the conference, France and Spain a couple each (including invited speakers). The UK could muster only one national newspaper reporter, although the BBC also attended. But it was always going to be an uphill battle getting science journalists to a conference that spread into the August Bank Holiday and ended less than a week before the annual meeting of the BA.

Attendance from German journalists was boosted by the Robert Bosch Foundation, one of the conference's biggest and earliest funders, which donated €250,000 to the ESOF before the programme committee had even been set up. The foundation sponsored 17 young regional reporters to come to Stockholm, and its head of Science in Society, Ingrid Wunning, is very pleased with the German coverage -the newspaper Die Zeit covered it online every day.

Wunning would like to see more focus on the audience, in particular on bringing key scientists and policy-makers together. This sentiment is shared by Anderson, who says: "We were told there would be opinion formers and decision-makers from across Europe, but there weren't."

Overall, though, the organisers are delighted, and even those with criticisms acknowledge the conference's success: European scientists had finally organised a European conference about science and its place in the world. At the end of the conference, ESOF steering committee chair Carl Johan Sundberg said: "The ball is now rolling - people from all walks see it as established." Although disappointed with the UK's participation, he said the conference had met its main objective - "to establish it at all with some sense of credibility".

The next Euroscience conference will take place in Munich in mid-July 2006, between the end of football's World Cup and the start of the world's most prestigious beer festival. Already, its future seems assured. The Robert Bosch Foundation has set aside €400,000 for the Munich event, a figure that will be matched by the German Stifterverband. The commission "will certainly support it", Gerold says.

And after Munich? Word at the conference had Barcelona down for 2008, but Euroscience is now in a seller's market, and Sundberg expects competitive bids from three or four cities. He is a human physiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and cannot wait to get back to focusing on gene activation and muscle adaptation to endurance training. But, as he would be the first to admit, the first Euroscience open conference was something of a marathon in itself.

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