Brussels, 18 Feb 2005
Policy-makers are putting on their thinking caps in the search for better ways to address what has been identified as a knowledge gap between scientific research and society. At the EU level, for example, a rich programme of activities seeks to bridge this divide. But there are also innovative national schemes tackling this problem. One example is the British Council's series of European Science Events, including exhibitions, lectures and a unique concept called Café Scientifique.
Café Scientifique is based on the French Café Philosophique tradition. Duncan Dallas of the UK adapted the model to science communication – leading to the development of a global Café Scientifique movement. It is an open and democratic way of involving all participants in a scientific discussion. The gathering is held in a café or other informal setting, ideally outside stuffy academic environments, and brings scientists together with the general public to bounce ideas off each other.
According to the British Council, it is "a new chance to tackle issues relating to science, technology and society" through focused but informal debate which is driven by a leading scientist in a particular area. Hosting them in bars around Europe encourages all-comers to drop by and join in the discussion.
"We are trying to get people interested in science," says Hervé Gouget, science officer at the British Council and organiser of the inaugural Brussels Café Scientifique. "At the same time, we are answering the universal challenge of finding better ways to communicate with society."
In February and March, Café Scientifique evenings are being staged in Sweden, Estonia and Brussels, and will take on a range of topical and thought-provoking scientific issues. The principle behind the evenings, notes Gouget, is that they are "democratic and you don't need scientific training to get involved in the discussion".
A speaker talks for 20 minutes or so and gives an outline of his or her field and a couple of relevant questions, generally without slides or visual aids. After a ten-minute break and a drink, the floor is then opened to the public. A moderated and constructive discussion of just under an hour takes place, involving but not led by the speaker.
"It is not a question and answer session, and the expert's voice does not dominate," the British Council stresses. "We also organise more formal science events around Europe, like exhibitions and lectures, but we are keen on this format because it brings science down from its ivory tower," explains Gouget. "People get to meet the scientists, and the expert gets the chance to test his or her ideas on a lay audience."
Brussels' first Café Scientifique – kicking off on 3 March in a café called Deep Fusion, near Place Luxembourg – introduces Susan Greenfield, a leading British scientist and media figure. A professor of physiology at Oxford University, she has been voted one of the '50 Most Inspirational Women in the World' by Harpers and Queen (1997), and 'Woman of the Year' by the Observer (2000), as well as written a book about the brain aimed at non-scientific readers. Her chosen topic is: 'What have chemicals got to do with consciousness?'
The idea that chemicals in our brains influence mood is not new but, with advances in the life sciences, it is attracting much more attention lately. Can we reduce thinking and consciousness to the function – or malfunction – of a few molecules in the brain? Is the soul as nebulous a concept as most scientists would have us believe? What is the role of science and drug therapy in altering behaviour? The discussion will explore the crossroads where neurons meet the material and spiritual world.