Café Scientifique: Spirited Public Discussions of Science Catch On Worldwide

January 12, 2007

Michelle Sipics

In May of 1998, a group of about 30 individuals gathered in a small café in Leeds, England, to participate in what was essentially a social experiment: Would members of the public actually take an interest in science if they were able to participate in a scientific discussion in plain English? A few hours later, after a lively discussion of the ideas in Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene, the group---and, in particular, organizer Duncan Dallas---left the café convinced that the answer to the question was yes.

Café Scientifique has since become a global project promoting public debate on scientific issues, organizing casual forums at cafés, bars, bookstores, and other small venues around the world. The events are open to everyone, are usually free, and have recently received increased attention in the U.S.---perhaps most notably from the National Science Foundation, which launched its own monthly café in the spring of last year.

NSF's Mary Hanson, who is behind the foundation's involvement with Café Scientifique, says that so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Almost everyone at NSF who has come to one has raved about it," she says. The idea is to "reduce some of the mystery and intimidation that the public sometimes feels about science, and after just three events, [the] benefits [were] already pretty obvious based on the response and the kind of interaction."

NSF's café events were not the first to be held in the U.S.; about 30 meet regularly across the country, in Boston, Seattle, Houston, and Denver, to name just a few. Hanson coordinated the foundation's efforts to establish cafés in Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, DC, after a discussion of the concept at the February 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"A few NSF folks [attended a] session about Café Scientifique, and asked me shortly thereafter, ‘Can we do this at NSF?,'" says Hanson. "Interest and energy seemed high, so I said, ‘let's go!' Interest remains strong, and seems to be growing."

Hanson's first event was held last April at The Front Page restaurant in Arlington. Astrophysicist Mike Turner, who had just left his post as NSF's assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences, kicked off the NSF series with a discussion of the big bang. "Before the Big Bang: What We Know, and How We Know It, About How the Universe Began" drew 120 attendees and established the lecture-plus-question-and-answer format of the NSF cafés. The second event ("Are We All Martians?"), held in Washington in May, featured NASA scientist Mike Meyer and science journalist Kathy Sawyer. NSF deputy director Kathie Olsen led a café in June; "Your Phantasmagorical Brain" drew 110 attendees, and Olsen calls it a "fun success."

"The audience seemed very interested and engaged, and that's always encouraging because we definitely need more public engagement in science," says Olsen. "That's the goal of Café Scientifique."

The café series has continued to grow, and Olsen has high hopes that the success of the NSF series will inspire similar events elsewhere.

"Our café is pretty new, but already, if we skip a month, people want to know why," she says. "Clearly the public likes this idea, and will attend events where science is discussed in an informal environment. The point is, science can be very appealing to non-scientists when presented in the right format and tone."

Andrew Lovinger, director of the polymer program in NSF's materials science division, agrees. Lovinger, who spoke at a December café meeting about the role of polymers in daily life, says the timely nature of the talks is one of their most inviting aspects.

"The focus of these events on topics of current importance or broad technological and scientific interest is, I think, one of its most appealing attributes," he says, adding that the café idea provides a nurturing atmosphere for the public's interest in science.

Lovinger notes that the attendees at his talk ranged from an 8-year-old child to "a gentleman who confessed to be 90." He was impressed by the enthusiasm of the audience: "The audience was really responsive . . . in fact, the questions lasted more than twice as long as the talk itself. One of the kids, a 6th grader, asked me lots of questions afterwards and said he wished he had brought his science teacher with him.

"The questions went well beyond [the] talk, touching on polymers and the environment, recycling, energy production and reliance on oil imports, plastics in space research---so I believe that the audience was really motivated and excited by what they heard to explore things beyond the topic itself," he adds.
Both Hanson and Lovinger are optimistic that the café project will continue to grow.

"One thing that impresses me about these cafés is that you see different faces for each, but also a good percentage of people who keep coming back," says Lovinger. "I believe that as more and more satisfied attendees get the word out to their families and friends, these cafés will become increasingly popular."
Hanson adds that there is already plenty of interest in expanding the cafés.

"I expect---and hope---that others will show up in the DC area," she says. "Maybe ours will help inspire more. We have moved into DC once already, and plan to do so again on occasion . . . but there is enough need---and audience---in this area for several more!"

NSF's Café Scientifique events are typically held on the first Tuesday of every month in either Arlington, Virginia, or Washington, DC. A list of NSF events can be found at http://cafescientifique.org/arlington.htm. Interested readers can also search for Café Scientifique events around the world at http://www.cafescientifique.org.

Michelle Sipics is a contributing editor at SIAM News.


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