Have you ever wanted to ask a scientist a pressing question about current scientific and technological research? Or maybe you are interested in these research subjects but find it difficult to navigate the dense language and challenging concepts on your own?
There is a place you can go for these things, a grassroots movement aimed at helping to demystify current scientific and technological research and raise overall levels of science literacy. The idea behind Café Scientifique is to bring together those interested in science and those who work in science and technology fields in an informal environment, such as a café or bar, and facilitate intelligible discussion about the latest trends and breakthroughs. The first Cafés Scientifique began in Leeds, England, in 1998. Today there are many science cafes around the world, and they go by all sorts of names: Science on Tap, Science Pub, Research Unplugged, and others. Anyone can start a science café, and each is unique, developing according to the needs or wants of the community it serves.
Science cafés are popping up all over the United States, including Wisconsin. Mary Kay Bates, an Ashland native, became interested in the Café Scientifique movement after reading about it in a trade magazine. For Bates, whose background is in cell and molecular biology research, “it’s a way to give back to the community and help non-scientists feel comfortable taking part in the discussion about science.” Using the Café Scientifique approach as a model, Bates ran a science café in Madison before moving north in 2008. In March 2011, she launched Ashland Science on Tap. Today Bates runs the program’s website, handles communication, and hosts the events herself. “The idea is that the speakers donate their time and the rest is volunteer,” she says.
One of those volunteers is Bruce Lindgren, president of the Lake Superior chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network (WIN-LS) of which Bates is an advisory board member. The Wisconsin Innovation Network is a community-based economic development organization dedicated to fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, and recruiting high-tech businesses to northern Wisconsin, says Bates. “Ashland Science on Tap [is] a means of bringing people together who are interested in talking about and learning more about science, [and] a way to help grow conversations about how to help these developments occur in northern Wisconsin.”
The general format of Café Scientifique—and Bates’s Ashland Science on Tap events—is that a speaker, knowledgeable in a particular scientific area, delivers a short introduction to the night’s topic. After the intro (and perhaps a beverage refill) the floor is open for a Q&A session between the designated expert and the audience. In Ashland, speakers volunteer or are recruited by Bates or Bruce Lindgren and range from professors to those involved with private scientific companies to employees of the National Park Service.
Bates’ few guidelines for speakers are that they should talk in such a manner that a high school student who walks in off the street could understand, they should be ready to speak loudly and address a wide variety of questions; and they should choose a topic they are excited to talk about. Previous Ashland Science on Tap topics include, “Biomass as a Renewable Energy Fuel,” “Discovery of a New Virus in Wisconsin Bluegills,” and “Nature Simplified: Using Dynamic Nanotechnology to Treat Disease.”
Held monthly, Ashland Science on Tap events are free and open to the public, though donations to help with website and poster printing costs are always appreciated. The Deep Water Grille in Ashland hosts the events, and is generous enough to donate the meeting space and provide some on-site print advertising. Local newspapers and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce also help to get out the word.
Though it’s been up and running only a few months, Ashland Science on Tap has had a great reception and attendance. The events have featured speakers from across the state, including Madison, La Crosse, and Ashland’s own Northland College. “It’s wonderful that the scientific community in the area has been supportive and interested in participating,” says Bates, adding that a number of Northland College faculty and WIN-LS board members regularly attend events. “We work hard to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable asking questions,” says Bates, noting that often the Deep Water Grill’s staff also takes part in the discussion, adding yet another dimension to the science café goal of getting all those interested and eager for science knowledge involved in the conversation.