Celebrating the Culture of Science

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Science  11 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6022, pp. 1242
DOI: 10.1126/science.1204773

There is an increasing worldwide consensus on the vital importance of science for personal, social, economic, and political development. This has spurred many countries to increase their investments in science and technology. But funding research is not enough: Nations must also promote cultures that celebrate science and its values of reasoning, openness, tolerance, and respect for evidence, just as they celebrate the arts and humanities that enrich everyone's lives. Not only formal education but informal outreach is critical in achieving this goal. Today, there is a great deal of creative experimentation with different methods of engaging the public with science. Our own experiences in organizing science festivals in the United States and Egypt illustrate the potential of one important form of public engagement.

Science festivals are rich expressions of the cultural importance of science and technology. Typically, they give researchers the chance to interact directly with students and citizens from all walks of life. They also offer many different forms of engagement, from lectures, dialogues, panel discussions and debates; through hands-on demonstrations, shows, exhibitions, and workshops; to science-related theater, cafes, music, and stand-up comedy. The topics covered are equally diverse, but no matter what the field, the goal is the same: to engage citizens with science in ways that are inspirational and empowering.


Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a “science city,” with more science per square foot than most other places. But even there, local access to science is extremely uneven. An annual Cambridge Science Festival was launched 4 years ago as one approach to address this divide by offering everyone a chance to engage with the city's scientists and engineers. Last spring, more than 40,000 people took up the opportunity to interact with scientists from all of Cambridge's universities and dozens of its high-tech companies.

Cairo is a much larger city than Cambridge, with very different needs and opportunities. Inspired by the U.S. Cambridge Science Festival and hosted by the American University in Cairo, the Cairo Science Festival was launched last year to increase awareness of, and opportunities in, science and its role in development, particularly for Egyptian youth, who represent the majority of Cairo's population of 20 million. It was also an example of how festivals can forge bridges between nations. In 2010, audiences in Cambridge and Cairo were connected via videoconferencing in a series of daily sessions that allowed U.S. and Egyptian audiences to join in conversation with Nobel Prize winners about their work. This year, we plan to extend the collaboration to include, among other things, a transnational discussion about the role—and control—of the Internet during social and political revolutions, in particular the “January 25 Revolution” centered in Tahrir Square, literally on the doorstep of the Cairo Science Festival.

To promote, support, and connect science festivals globally, a Science Festival Alliance was created in 2009 (www.ScienceFestivals.org). Last month, the alliance helped organize an International Public Science Events Conference in Washington, DC. This drew more than 200 participants (including scientists) who are involved in science festivals and science cafes in 16 different countries—from China, Japan, and Singapore to Egypt, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There we agreed to collaborate by, for example, sharing best practices and circulating successful programs. Increased support for such initiatives at the national and international levels will allow local cultures to develop a deeper connection to science, as well as connect otherwise distant communities and cultures in common encounters, inquiries, and understandings. We look forward to seeing science festivals proliferate across the globe.

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