Café Scientifique - promoting UK science abroad through dialogue

March 11, 2005

Brussels, 10 Mar 2005

2005 is a big year for the UK on the world stage, with the country holding the G8 Presidency, as well as the EU Presidency for the second half of the year. With all eyes on the UK, the government and other bodies wish to create a positive image of the country, and one way of doing this is through science.

The strategy of using science to shape perceptions of the UK was first advocated by the UK government during the late 1990s. A series of surveys carried out in 26 countries showed that the UK was not perceived as being 'up there' in terms of science, according to Lloyd Anderson, Director for Science at the British Council.

While the government got to work on its own initiatives to change perceptions and present a modern image of the UK, the British Council decided to refresh its approach to promoting the country's science abroad, feeling that the best approach would be to explore the big issues affecting the daily lives of people worldwide. It was then that the British Council took up the idea of the 'Café Scientifique'.

While the term may appear highbrow, the intention is just the opposite - to demystify science and help people to engage with it. The concept was formulated in the UK and based on France's 'Café Philosophique'. The idea is to bring together a scientist with members of the public in an informal setting. The scientist gives a very brief presentation, after which the audience is invited to ask questions and to hold a discussion on the subject of the presentation.

The idea soon took off in the UK, and it was then that the British Council 'saw the potential in terms of the impact we wanted to achieve abroad,' Dr Anderson told CORDIS News.

Initially the plan was to create this impact through videoconferencing. A British scientist would give a presentation to a room full of people somewhere in the UK, while groups in countries as diverse as Thailand, Palestine and Moscow watched via a video link-up. This idea again proved popular, with some countries deciding to run the scheme nationally.

Starting this year, the British Council's offices around Europe then began organising their own events. Discussions on bio-surveillance in the nano age, genetically modified plants and consciousness have already taken place in Sweden, Estonia and Belgium. For the latter, the British Council flew Baroness Susan Greenfield to Brussels. A professor of physiology at Oxford University, she was voted 'Woman of the Year' by a national newspaper in 2000, and is a well-known for her radio and TV broadcasts in the UK.

The event was a huge success. But is it only scientists recognisable from TV who can draw a crowd? Dr Anderson thinks not: 'I think they do pull in the punters, but I think a good issue will as well.' With this in mind, he is also eager to get the next generation of lesser known scientists involved.

Dr Anderson admits that it can be difficult to find scientists who are good communicators, and that there is a small pool of them which tends to get used time and time again. He is convinced that scientists are getting better at communicating, however, particularly younger scientists. All those approached have also been very enthusiastic about introducing new science to a new audience.

One of the interesting aspects of the initiative's success is that while attendance is always high, the audience consists of predominantly non-scientists. This illustrates that the general public really is interested in understanding more about science, believes Dr Anderson.

The future looks bright for Café Scientifique. On a national level, the UK is now looking to introduce the concept in schools, while more events across Europe are planned for the coming year. For Dr Anderson, the scheme will have been successful if the British Council can see that it has encouraged more young people to take up science, and if it has changed perceptions of the UK. 'We don't necessarily want people to think that we're brilliant at science, but that we're open to discussion,' he said.

For information on forthcoming events, please consult the following web address:
http:///www.britishcouncil. org/brussels-e uropean-science-calendar.htm

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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