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Europe's Science Gathering Draws Crowds and Long-Term Funds

Science  25 Jul 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5888, pp. 475a
DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5888.475a

BARCELONA—Judging from the hallway talk, Europe's biennial science festival was a boon for this city's notorious pickpockets; tales abounded about participants who, after a stroll along the fabled Ramblas, spent the afternoon at a police station instead of debating biofuels or brain science. But that was about the only blemish on the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2008.

Graphic Read much more about ESOF 2008 at Findings, Science's news blog.

This year saw twice as many participants as attended the 2006 edition in Munich—some 4500 from 66 countries, including about 400 journalists—more sessions, and a greater variety of big names. Hatched only 4 years ago in Stockholm (Science, 3 September 2004, p. 1387), ESOF is fast becoming a key meeting point for scientists, policymakers, and reporters from around the continent; the meeting has come to embody the integration of dozens of national research cultures into something more European, says Norbert Kroó, vice-president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

ESOF's format was inspired by the annual meeting of AAAS. (“A smaller AAAS meeting with better food,” one participant quipped.) Both have a very broad scientific program, covering everything from nanotechnology to cosmology, and many public outreach events. ESOF's many policy sessions dealt with distinctly European trends and anxieties, however, such as international mobility or difficulties turning research into economic growth. At a session on innovation, for example, a speaker advocated the “dedemocratization” of R&D by betting more money on fewer groups, because Europe's tradition of spreading funding across countries isn't working.

Clear sailing.

Outreach events such as this balloon-launched paper ship are a hallmark of ESOF, which has secured new funding for its future meetings.

CREDIT: ESOF 2008

ESOF is held in a different city every other year and, like the Olympics, is largely organized by a local committee and people they recruit from across Europe. The inevitable result has been the occasional reinvention of wheels, says Enric Banda, co-chair of the Barcelona committee. To address that problem, five private foundations—two each from Italy and Germany, and one from Sweden—announced on Monday that they have formed a “Supporters Club” that will pony up €1.6 million over the next 4 years to set up an ESOF secretariat. Right now, Euroscience, ESOF's parent organization, has only one permanent staff member.

The secretariat will take care of fundraising at the European level and serve as an institutional memory. But ESOF wants to retain the strong local involvement because it generates much more enthusiasm than a central organization, says Swedish physician Carl Johan Sundberg, who dreamed up the concept 10 years ago.

Making cities vie to host ESOF is also a way to improve future meetings. The northern Italian city of Torino, for instance, won the 2010 edition in part because it promised a very ambitious Web presence. Torino computer scientist Angelo Raffaele Meo has taken up the challenge of webcasting every session live, and remote viewers will be able to interact, for instance, by e-mailing questions for speakers.

Helga Nowotny, the Austrian chair of the 2010 program committee, said she'd also like to see more participants from Eastern Europe and from private businesses. Sundberg, for his part, says he'll strive for more audience participation. “Too often, it's still a series of talking heads,” he says.

Dublin and Vienna have thrown their hats in the ring for ESOF 2012 and were lobbying heavily in Barcelona. Other cities that want to cultivate a brainier image have until 1 October to bid.

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