Ken Skeldon recalls inspiration and the occasional frustration.
At this year’s EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, I could have been forgiven for feeling cerebrally spoilt. Where else could you catch CERN’s Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer enthusing on the search for the Higgs particle barely a week after its probable discovery? Or hear self-made genomics pioneer Craig Venter expressing his vision for the future? Or watch Bob Geldof - self-confessed non-expert on anything scientific – deliver a curiously compelling speech about the here-and-now and where science fits?
The real machinery of ESOF lay in the dozens of parallel sessions covering science in society, careers, policy and business. So densely packed were they that zero minute gaps (yes, zero) frequently existed between them, resulting in hasty gallops and encounters with the inevitable overrun-induced queues. However, logistics aside, did anything new emerge?
Over the last 20 years we have seen dramatic progress in public engagement. The Beacons for Public Engagement have endowed the higher education system with a formidable array of resources for this activity. Meanwhile the new Research Excellence Framework makes room for public engagement and associated researcher development through non-academic impact and research environment metrics. Perhaps more importantly, a movement around public engagement in UK higher education institutions has gathered unquestionable momentum.
Depth verses breadth
What can events like ESOF add? How do you progress challenges or address specific questions within a limited number of sessions of necessarily pseudo-general appeal? Even those with concise briefs attracted a diverse mix of researchers, teachers, science communicators, journalists and business people, meaning that generalised conversations inevitably followed.
If new ideas or innovative thinking is to emerge, the stakeholder groups need focus and the depth of interaction tailored and intensified. The opinions of other delegates would be crucial here – but surprisingly no evaluation at the event was in evidence anywhere that I could see, although a post-event online survey was issued.
As strategic lead for public engagement with research at a university of almost 20,000 students and staff, I’d long for discussions on questions/issues such as, ‘What if every university researcher decided tomorrow they wanted to do public engagement?’ or ‘You can’t do enough research, but you can do too much public engagement - discuss’. Pursuing these might well probe issues on the horizon, or produce ideas, but only if contributors have a real sense of ownership over the potential outcomes.
Lost in the crowd?
One of the real benefits of meetings like ESOF lies in making new contacts, though at the Dublin meeting this was hampered by the omission of networking coffee breaks anywhere in the daily schedules. The absence of a delegate list served only to further impede effective contact-making: ‘too many delegates’ was one reason I was given, but that was exactly why it was needed, preferably referenced to registration details. Given the excellent IT solutions pervading the meeting, including smartphone apps and social media feeds, a basic delegate lookup facility seemed a curious omission.
The penultimate day’s lively evening soirée certainly demonstrated an appetite for social connectivity among delegates. Having this event nearer the start of the meeting might be something to consider in future.
Regardless of the content and outputs of ESOF, there is still an important agenda being served by such gatherings. Namely, when issues such as early career development, public engagement, policy making, entrepreneurship and impact are so clearly valued through packed sessions of stakeholders of all flavours, then those present able to bring about change take note. The mix of keynotes, high-hitting panels and grass-roots sessions won me over.
In two years, Copenhagen takes the ESOF reins. I’d encourage courageous scheduling, with sessions tackling interesting and provocative challenges aimed at specific parties with a real potential, indeed a remit, for the generation of ideas.