A breath of fresh air?

Dr Gail Cardew, Chair of the ESOF Supervisory Board, blogs about how perceptions of the EuroScience Open Forum have changed over the last decade.

  • Credit: Flickr: Jenny Downing

Dr Gail Cardew, the Ri's Director of Science and Education and Chair of the ESOF Supervisory Board talks about her impressions of the most recent ESOF conference in Copenhagen in June 2014.

In his remarks during the handover ceremony at the end of last week’s EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Copenhagen, the Director-General of DG Research and Innovation in the European Commission, Robert Jan Smits, said that ESOF is now the biggest and best general science conference in Europe. As someone centrally involved in its rise, from humble beginnings in Stockholm in 2004, I was of course chuffed to bits.

But not as chuffed as witnessing first-hand the experiences of the young scientists taking part – their enthusiasm for science policy, their ability to ask penetrating questions, and their zest at sharing their own work with their peers and with a much wider audience. 

Before I explain why this left such a strong impression on me, first let me explain what ESOF actually is. Taking place once every two years in a different European city, it aims to bring together scientists, policy makers, the media, the business community and – through the Science in the City programme – the wider public to discuss and debate pressing issues in science. It has an extraordinarily vibrant atmosphere due to the fact that it has exactly the right mix of top scientists (Nobel Prize Laureates, Fields Medallists), top policy makers (e.g. the current European Commissioner Manuel Barosso and Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn) and a large number of young scientists starting out on their careers. 

When we first started ESOF, I fairly quickly lost count of the number of scientists who said we couldn’t possibly succeed. These were scientists who couldn’t quite understand why anyone would want to step outside the comfy world of their subject-specific conferences. In other words, scientists who were unable or unwilling to see why their research was of any interest to anyone but their peers.

I couldn’t understand where they were coming from. But maybe that’s because, despite a strong commitment to science, I gave up bench research fairly early on – I just couldn’t face the idea of gradually narrowing down my field of expertise until I became one of only a few who understood exactly what I was doing. And I was just too excited (and nosy, I guess) about everything everyone else was doing.

Surely, I thought in Stockholm, we need to give scientists the opportunity to take a fresh breath of air – to stick their heads up above the bench and help them take a good look at the landscape of science around them. And, contrary to what you might expect me to say considering I’m at the Ri, I think it’s just as important to give scientists the opportunity to talk to other scientists outside their discipline and to policy makers as it is to encourage them to speak to the public. We must remember that all these elements are connected – a sort of Venn diagram linking research with policy, business, media and of course society.

Thankfully, things have changed since those early Stockholm days. Scientists, and young scientists in particular, seem to have found their voices and are willing to engage much more widely with people outside their direct fields of interest.

Is this because the level of science funding is on shaky ground across many areas in Europe and scientists need to speak more loudly to policy makers and industry to communicate the value of what they are doing? Is it because so many of the grand challenges facing society now require scientists to collaborate more widely to solve some of the most complex problems? Is it because scientists now have more opportunities to share their work in different ways through blogs, Twitter, YouTube etc? Or is it because scientists are now starting to realise that sharing their work with society is actually quite good for them?

In the words of Cédric Villani at ESOF:

You feel so good after you have given this kind of speech to a crowd of young students. It is much better than giving a talk to your colleagues. It reinvigorates you… It also helps you to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it.

I’m not sure the answer matters too much. What’s more important is both to give scientists the opportunity to engage more widely with a variety of people and to be unafraid to challenge those who still prefer to hide in their labs. Even in Copenhagen I had an extremely heated exchange with one such person who steadfastly refused to do anything other than research and publish.

But I’d like to think we are entering a phase when the old mantra of ‘publish or perish’ is decaying as quickly as a sample of 32P. Instead we are moving towards a more open and complex era where sharing your work with as many people as possible, using as many different formats as possible, is preferable or even obligatory.

ESOF 2016 will take place in Manchester, UK. Find out more. 

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