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A Distinctly European Meeting

Euroscience Open Forum spotlights science on the European agenda, including the role of science in economic and cultural life

by William G. Schulz
August 27, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 35

Credit: Office of Michael Higgins
Irish President Higgins addressed the ESOF 2012 gathering.
Ireland President Michael D. Higgins. Taken at ESOF July  11 to 15, 2012 in Dublin.
Credit: Office of Michael Higgins
Irish President Higgins addressed the ESOF 2012 gathering.

It’s been called “the AAAS meeting of Europe,” in reference to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And although that’s true in a sense, the biennial Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF)—in its short, eight-year history—has developed a character and flavor that is distinctly European.

This year’s meeting, ESOF 2012, was held on July 11–15 in Dublin. As Europe’s largest general science meeting, it featured more than 500 sessions covering a wide range of scientific disciplines. It also included sessions on science careers and business and an exposition featuring more than 60 exhibitors from industry, academe, and the nonprofit world. In a nod to Ireland’s great literary tradition, 12 Irish poets contributed to a book of poetry that was included in every conference registration packet.

ESOF is meant to “highlight science on the European agenda,” says one of its founders, Carl Johan Sundberg, an associate professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. What it has in common with AAAS meetings, he says, is the broad scope of scientific disciplines represented. But the meeting has an intimacy and “buzz” of its own, perhaps because of its smaller size. Sundberg notes that, compared with meetings in the U.S. of late, ESOF tends to attract a younger crowd of researchers and students, which could be because of the culture of European science that somewhat favors face-to-face gatherings.

Indeed, on one perfect summer night of the Dublin meeting, scores of young researchers from across Europe who attended the meeting gathered for a boisterous “Irish House Party” in the city’s hopping Temple Bar district. Music, dancing, and hearty Irish fare accompanied, for example, talk of new work on ionizing radiation by a young Italian physicist or the hopes of a Slovenian researcher with a new Ph.D. who wants to push the edge of telecommunications capabilities with her work in laser optics.

ESOF 2012 showed what a huge success the meeting is becoming among European scientists in every stage of their careers. Sundberg says he first proposed the idea for the meeting when he joined the board of the nonprofit Euroscience—a Strasbourg, France-based grassroots organization of scientists and others interested in science—in 1999. Some 1,500 people showed up for the first ESOF meeting in 2004 in Stockholm, Sundberg says. This year in Dublin, approximately 4,500 people attended the meeting, and the indicators are that ESOF will continue to grow and attract support and sponsorship. ESOF 2014 will be held in Copenhagen.

ESOF 2012 was sponsored by a collection of companies such as IBM, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Intel as well as nonprofit groups such as the European Commission, Science Foundation Ireland, and Germany’s Robert Bosch Foundation. Sundberg says he hopes ESOF will attract more industry sponsors as well as meeting attendees from industry in the years ahead.

European cities compete to host ESOF, Sundberg says, because it is considered one of the premier events of science. As this year’s host, Dublin also put on a 10-day “Science in the City” festival, which featured photographic and art exhibitions, theatrical productions, film festivals, treasure hunts, talks, and a variety of other activities for the general public that tied into the forum itself. Dublin was also declared the “City of Science” for 2012 by ESOF and as such will host a yearlong calendar of events to engage and excite the public about science.

At the ESOF 2012 opening ceremonies, Irish President Michael D. Higgins gave a forceful address on the necessity of R&D investments by governments—including his own—as well as the ethical challenges that come with new scientific discoveries, the role of science in creating sustainable economies, and the integration of science within society at large.

“Technology, society, and culture is indeed a pervading theme throughout this conference,” Higgins said, “and one which I hope will encourage continued innovation and original interdisciplinary thinking. There can be no doubt that recognizing and being open to new paradigms of thought and action can only enrich our social, cultural, and economic development and lead to a common shared future built on the spirit of cooperation, the collective will, real participation, and an exciting sense of what might be possible.”

Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Meeting attendees enjoyed spectacular views of Dublin from the city’s ultramodern convention center.
Atrium of the Dublin, Ireland Convention Center, site of the Euroscience Open Forum 2012.
Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Meeting attendees enjoyed spectacular views of Dublin from the city’s ultramodern convention center.

A bevy of scientific luminaries from Europe and the U.S. spoke at the meeting, including Nobel Laureate Jules A. Hoffman of France’s National Center for Scientific Research; European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer; Charles F. Bolden Jr., National Aeronautics & Space Administration administrator; Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations high-commissioner for human rights; Nobel Laureate James D. Watson; human genome and synthetic biology pioneer J. Craig Venter; and theoretical physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene. Such was the star power of speakers on the program that many of the keynote sessions saw capacity crowds.

And it was no different for many of the scientific sessions. It was standing room only at “Science and the Future of Cuisine,” for example, which featured White House pastry chef William Yosses; Hervé This, “the father of molecular gastronomy”; and Maastricht University professor Mark Post, who described his research group’s efforts to grow “synthetic meat” from stem cells. The controversial subject of hydraulic fracturing also drew a crowd, as did a session on the use of archaeology to address problems associated with the long-term storage of nuclear waste. In addition, sessions on research integrity, peer review, and the state of science journalism around the world were heavily attended.

It was a rare keynote or other session at ESOF 2012 that didn’t include some mention of the discoveries announced just a week prior to the forum by CERN of new evidence said to confirm the existence of the subatomic Higgs boson particle (C&EN Online,July 5). “The Higgs field discovery deserves a huge celebration,” said Euroscience President Enric Banda. He called it a victory for European science and predicted that it will be an example of how long-term investments in basic research can benefit and contribute to the European economy.

“The discovery of ‘maybe’ the Higgs boson gives clues as to how to move forward” in particle physics research, said Harvard University physicist Lisa Randall as an introduction to her talk on the state of theoretical physics research.

ESOF 2012 was “timed perfectly, just at the moment when research has captured the public’s imagination,” said Máire Geog­hegan-Quinn, European commissioner for research, innovation, and science, also in reference to the Higgs discovery.

But Geoghegan-Quinn’s optimism came in the context of the grave economic crisis that has gripped most of Europe for the past year. With austerity looming for many EU member states, “we are facing a battle to preserve a central role for science,” she said. But she drew applause when she said that “science is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Science is one of the keys to our recovery. Investment in science is investment in innovation and jobs.”

Geoghegan-Quinn may have been preaching to the choir, but her words were amplified through the general press from across Europe that covered the meeting daily. And if the competitions to host ESOF meetings, the vocal support from EU officials, and the spirit of Dubliners who were this year’s hosts are any indicators, then European science can nurture some optimism for its role in efforts to forge a better economic future for all of Europe.


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