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When science and the general public cross paths

Initiatives like science slams, late-night science sessions, and Germany’s ‘City of Science’ have one thing in common: they all aim to get the general public interested in current research. But can the gulf between scientists and non-scientists really be bridged? And why does it matter?

The relationship between scientists and non-scientists is difficult to characterise. Knowledge sociologist Peter Weingart thinks that ‘most Germans are in favour of research into better mobile phones but less enthusiastic about research into nuclear energy.’ The last ten years or so have seen an increasing number of initiatives to encourage dialogue between scientists and non-scientists, including ‘science slams’ and a competition pitting towns and cities against each other for the title ‘City of Science’.

Hanns Hatt, a researcher specialised in the science of scents, welcomes these trends: ‘My research is funded by public taxes,’ he says, ‘so people have a right to find out what I do.’ He thinks that all scientists should be trying to make their research accessible and understandable. Hatt, a professor at Bochum’s Ruhr University, sees himself as something of a role model, and in 2010, the German Research Foundation awarded him its Communicator Award for his commitment to bringing science to a broader public. ‘Events like science slams can really enthuse people about scientific achievements’, he says, ‘and my field is an excellent example of how research can actually influence their lives.’

Can science communicate with the general public?

However, Peter Weingart, who holds a chair at Bielefeld University, is not convinced that these new formats create a real dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. ‘These days, virtually all science is highly abstract and uses complex language, so it’s difficult to achieve real communication between scientists and non-scientists’, he argues.

According to Weingart, people who attend science slams just want to be entertained, whereas good science is precise and, usually, complex. What do you think? Is it possible for scientists to have a proper dialogue with non-scientists? How important is it to society that scientific discoveries are communicated to non-scientists? Are there events like science slams or late night science sessions in your country?

Platforms which generate interaction between scientists and non-scientists:

The traditional model: Dies Academicus

Dies Academicus – ‘day of scholarship’, if your Latin is a little rusty – is a programme that has been bringing science to the general public in German universities for over 20 years. Twice a year, a number of universities open their doors to interested laypeople for a day, offering a programme of discussion on current research.

Quick and accessible: science slams

The aim of science slams, which have been running in Germany for about four years, is to ‘clear the stage for science!’ according to the initiative’s slogan. A science slam is analogous to the perhaps better known poetry slam: scientists have just ten minutes to present their research to an audience made up of the general public, usually in a pub or bar. The idea is that their talks should be exciting and informative but also entertaining, ensuring that everyone learns something while also having fun.

Going behind the scenes: the ‘Long Night of Science’

The ‘Long Night of Science’ – a programme of late-night science sessions – gives non-scientists a chance to see the researchers in their natural habitat, in research institutes and laboratories. From early evening until late at night, scientists demonstrate experiments and explain to a lay audience what they are currently working on.

Local initiatives: ‘City of Science’

Since 2005, the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft – a future-focused organisation that spearheads a major science and learning initiative – has named one town or city in Germany ‘City of Science’ each year. To be eligible, the town or city has to demonstrate how it intends to bring science to the general public more effectively. A total of 51 towns and cities have entered last year, and Lübeck was the 2012 ‘City of Science’.

January 2012

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