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Science Cafés Bring Researchers into the Community

Scientists have long worried that they don't do a good enough job of communicating with the public the purpose and value of scientific research. Sometimes the nuances of that research are lost in brief news reports, and scientific papers and presentations tend to be too complex for non-specialists. But there's a new, international approach that's helping to bridge this communications gap and build public enthusiasm for science.

It's Tuesday evening at The Front Page, a neighborhood bar and restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. Office workers gather to unwind. The local news is on the TV over the bar. But out back, in the open atrium of the office building where the restaurant is located, nearly 200 people are gathered for this month's Café Scientifique, a program where scientists meet the public in an informal setting. These gatherings began in Europe in the 1990s, as Mary Hanson explained in her introduction to the evening's program.

"It started, actually - this whole concept, that is - as Café Philosophique in France, of course, and then jumped across to the U.K., where it grew into Café Scientifique," said Hanson. "And from the U.K. across the ocean to the U.S., and now there are at least 30 cafés in the U.S. sort of like this. And I am thrilled to see so many people here, which I think is a record-breaking crowd."

Hanson works in the public affairs office at the National Science Foundation, which sponsors this Café Scientifique. Others are sponsored by universities, bookstores or coffee shops.

Hanson started this Café Scientifique last year after hearing about it from Sarah Goforth, now a producer at Discovery Communications. I asked Goforth what makes a great Café Scientifique event.

"I would say somebody who loves what they do and can speak about science in a way that doesn't alienate the audience with a lot of lingo and a lot of insider terminology and the kind of scary things that make people afraid to take organic chemistry when they get to college," she said. "That, and also an informal setting, like a bar or a cafe, where people don't think they're in this big lecture hall and they're embarrassed to ask a question. And that's really it. It's pretty simple."

On Tuesday, the speaker was Douglas Ubelaker, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. He has worked on ancient skeletons excavated in Ecuador, and has also worked with law enforcement agencies on more recent, criminal mysteries. Although there were other scientists in the audience, the idea is to communicate with people like Windy Cooler-Stith, a non-scientist.

"No, no professional interest. I just really enjoy science and my son Mac, he's 11, he really enjoys science, and I think these cafes are really valuable to our educational experience," she said. Her son added, "I'm hoping to learn mostly about most of the bone structure and what makes them up, and what's the main purpose and, well, mainly just what are they basically made out of."

Doug Ubelaker gave a brief presentation, but for most of his 90 minutes he fielded a large variety of questions from the folks in the audience.

"Doug, how much of your work is objective and how much subjective?"
"What do you think of [TV] shows like CIS and Bones?"
"Do you find you get more personal and professional satisfaction digging up things more modern, like say when the FBI comes to you about cases, or answering questions about mankind's past?"
"With the surge of interest in forensic science among the young that you're describing, what is the job market for them like?"
"Have you heard of the iceman that was found in the Alps?"

"Well, I like the challenge of presenting a complex science to people that may not have the foundation to understand that complex science," said Ubelaker afterwards. "And I think that's a challenge, but it's an important challenge. It allows me as a scientist to connect and to focus on the fundamental issues that are behind some of the more complex applications that we deal with."

This local Café Scientifique has been meeting for less than a year. Last time the scientist was Andy Lovinger, who spoke about plastics in December and came back this evening to sit in the audience.

"Oh, this is so exciting," he enthused. "When I presented last month we had an audience ranging from kids about seven years old to people who were 90 years old. They all asked questions, it was very enthusiastic. The questions actually lasted twice as long as the talk. And it was wonderful. Everybody who is here is here because they want to be here. They're interested in science, and there was very good give-and-take."

Café Scientifique organizers worry that as their programs become more popular, they will lose the intimacy and two-way communications of smaller gatherings. But this evening's large turnout does suggest that many in the community want to learn more about science, directly from the scientists themselves.