European cities of science

Gail Cardew, Professor of Science, Culture and Society, discusses the importance of positioning science at the heart of culture ahead of the EuroScience Open Forum.

Did you know that the European City of Science 2016 is Manchester, UK? This title was conferred on the city because this July – a few weeks after the UK population has voted to leave the European referendum – it will play host to the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), Europe’s largest general science conference.

I’ve been a loyal member of EuroScience – the non-political, grass-roots organisation behind this conference – for many years. As a result I chair the committee that chooses the ESOF host cities, which I like to imagine is a bit like choosing an Olympic city, only for science instead of sport.

  • Interior of office building 40 at the Meyrin site at CERN.

    The European Organization for Nuclear Research – also known as CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) is a European research organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

    Credit: Gillis Danielsen CC BY-SA 3.0

There is more to this comparison than you might think. The whole essence of ESOF is that it brings together leading scientists from across Europe (the ‘elite athletes’, of European science, let’s say) to discuss and debate science in its widest sense. Scientists share their work with others outside their disciplines, reflect on factors that affect their working practice – such as ethics, policy, business, funding, and careers – and discuss important trends facing the scientific community. There are even prizes, awards and bursaries for young researchers and science journalists.

All of this, however, is discussed in an open format, in the heart of the city, alongside the rest of the cultural scene. There are science exhibitions, poetry readings, cafés, film festivals, plays and myriad other activities that inspire, challenge and pique the interest of a much wider audience (or in Olympic-speak, ‘spectators’).

This is very important to me. Science shapes our lives, our cultures and our futures in many ways. The task of working out how best to harness it for the maximum benefit of society is, I believe, far too important to be left to scientists alone.

Although this positioning of science at the very heart of ‘culture’ may seem very modern in its approach, it is in fact not entirely new. For 200 years the Royal Institution – with its varied public talks on arts and humanities as well as the maths and sciences – has also embraced this concept by seeking to overcome the tendency to separate into the ‘two cultures’ identified by CP Snow.

Many scientists are worried about the long-term and short-term impacts of exiting the European Union, especially on funding and the mobility of early-career scientists, which is essential for gaining valuable research experience. Others are worried about the UK’s ability to play an influential role in large pan-European science projects.

But even less clear is the long-term effect that leaving the EU will have on the societal and cultural aspects of science. In terms of science and culture, will UK society be enriched, weakened or unchanged outside the European Union?

To some degree it will depend on the relationships between scientists – the personal relationships formed between individuals who are energised by a common interest in scientific discovery and technological creation. Those connections are very strong, and often operate beyond the bounds of any particular nation or supranational body. But it will also depend on continued efforts to genuinely position science at the heart of culture and to involve a wider cross-section of society in discussions about our shared, science – and technology – dependent future.

This piece first appeared in a publication from the British Council: The Morning After: The future of the UK’s cultural relationship with other European nations

EuroScience Open Forum takes place in Manchester 23–27 July 2016.

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