A Europe-wide event on Friday, 29 September will open the doors to a world of science shaping the future of society.
By ALI JONES
It’s sometimes called the “white-coat” syndrome – when a stressed-out person goes to a doctor and the nervousness causes the patient’s blood pressure to spike.
Researchers who enjoy the same authority as doctors can often have a patient-like apprehension about something very different: being in the spotlight.
Into the limelight
Yet many will overcome such anxiety in numerous events being organised as part of “European Researchers’ Night”, peeling away some of the mystery behind scientific work and showcasing the people behind it.
‘Researchers are ordinary people with extraordinary jobs,’ said Julia Brink, national coordinator of a Swedish science festival called ForskarFredag that receives EU support.
As many as 1.5 million people are expected to take part in this year’s edition – the 18th – of the annual European Researchers’ Night. The number of researchers who will participate is expected to be in the tens of thousands.
In all, 26 countries from Iceland to Turkey will host in-person and online events designed to introduce children, families and the general public to researchers, their daily work and its impact on society.
It’s a flagship event backed by the EU’s main funding programme for postdoctoral education and training of researchers – the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.
One approach taken in Sweden is to “borrow” a scientist.
Whether it’s a climatologist explaining extreme weather, a clinician discussing tumours or a materials expert describing mobile-phone components, teachers in the country can “Borrow a Researcher” for their classes as easily as taking a book out of the library.
The activity is part of an EU initiative called “Researchers at Schools”, which promotes such exchanges year-round.
In Sweden, a booking website allows teachers to select a researcher whose studies fit their lessons.
It has proved to be so popular that the Borrow a Researcher “drop date” is often marked in teachers’ planners.
Because a class of students can be intimidating to outsiders, the chosen researchers are first trained by the ForskarFredag team.
They’re given tips on how to tell the story of their research and either encouraged to bring possible props into the classroom or steered on ways to keep a class hooked online.
It’s a chance for young people to find out about research that’s relevant to their daily lives and to do so in an informal, enjoyable way.
‘Students can see what research is happening in their local area and they can understand why it’s important for them, for society and for the environment,’ said Brink.
And, in the way that a good teacher can change a student’s life by triggering interest in a particular subject, an engaging researcher can open a young person’s mind to a scientific matter.
Student encounters with people working on some of society’s biggest challenges – from restoring biodiversity and finding sources of clean energy to developing new medicines and producing healthier foods – can pave the way to higher education and a future career path.
In Italy, getting to know the person behind the research has turned competitive.
Over the past school year, researchers across the country have fine-tuned their communication skills and battled head-to-head in a format called Sumo Science.
It’s one of the main setups that resulted from an EU-funded project – SHARPER – to connect researchers with schools.
In total, 64 researchers began the national competition, facing live questions about themselves and their areas of work from journalists. Since then, it has been up to students to query and pick their favourite communicator.
After the last knockout round, four researchers remain for the final contest. It’s due to take place in the city of Perugia in central Italy on European Researchers’ Night and to be broadcast online on the SHARPER website.
A second Sumo Science competition featuring 16 researchers working in Italy and beyond is also down to the final four contestants. The outcome will be broadcast online on the SHARPER website on Wednesday, 27 September.
Cristian Rosa, a professor at the Technological State Technical Institute “Alessandro Volta” in Perugia, took his teenage electronics students to a Sumo Science match where an international-relations expert and an archaeologist competed on stage to impress the audience.
He said the event captured the students’ imagination.
‘Back in the classroom, we all talked together and they were very impressed by the studies and research,’ said Rosa. ‘They could see the value of doing research and the results of it on our lives.’
Lifting the lid on science also gives young women the chance to see female scientists successfully pursuing senior research roles.
Linda Ibrahim, an 18-year-old student at Faravelli secondary school in the Italian town of Stradella near Pavia, said a Sumo Science match that she watched gave her a whole new perspective of researchers.
‘I imagined them working on their own, separated from each other, focusing on their topic,’ she said. ‘I discovered how they work in team-sharing efforts.’
Out and about
On European Researchers’ Night, the national Sumo Science final in Italy will feature topics ranging from the effects of pollution on marine organisms and the physiological mechanisms underlying people’s facial expressions to the use of data to interpret phenomena in forestry and magnetic energy storage during solar flares.
In multiple cities in Italy and across Europe, the event will entail traditional and popular science cafes, talks, experiments and presentations.
‘European Researchers’ Night is a testing lab for new ideas,’ said Leonardo Alfonsi, scientific director of Psiquadro, a non-profit science-communications organisation that has led SHARPER for the past 10 years. ‘If the format works, it’s the first step in creating an ongoing connection between communities and researchers.’
So how about a speed lecture and questions for morning commuters?
In a scheme called “Travel Mates”, researchers on the metro in Perugia strike up conversations with individual passengers.
‘The activities are kind of a gym for learning to listen to people, to their expectations and their fears,’ said Alfonsi.
He said the researchers need to be well trained and able to improvise during these encounters, which offer just minutes to convey what study is being done and why.
In Perugia and the northern Italian city of Turin, a “Researchers on Tap” arrangement will offer bargoers a very different kind of drinks menu.
On European Researchers’ Night, people can order research chats paired to particular beers. The orders will be brought to the tables by the participating researchers.
Whether it’s astrophysics, mathematics, veterinary research or some other topic, customers can take their pick of subject and sips of brew with highly qualified acting waiters.
The idea was conceived jointly by the Psiquadro team and a University of Turin associate professor named Claudio Forte when he was a young researcher in Perugia.
The team has created a network of researchers, cultural institutions and non-governmental organisations in Italian cities to show how research can enhance cultural life.
One outcome of this is a planned 24-hour marathon from 29 September in which cities will showcase where local research of note is taking place. Two examples are a former mine in Sardinia that is a potential site for an underground telescope to observe gravitational waves and the man-made Marmore waterfalls in Umbria where biodiversity is studied.
Showcase events also allow people to have a go at science through hands-on experiments and the public to take part in science projects over many months.
In Sweden, one public initiative is called the “Plastic Experiment”. Thousands of people have been collecting, categorising and weighing plastic that they found in a square metre of land.
The aim of such “citizen-science” actions is to find out what types of plastic goods end up in the Swedish environment and where. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have analysed results for the first half of the project and a second collection is underway, mapped out live online.
Last year, European Researchers’ Night drew participants from 60% of the communities across Sweden, according to Brink, who has equally high expectations for the 2023 edition.
‘We hope that this year at least this many people can be part of this Europe-wide celebration,’ she said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU via the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.