Cultivating scientific creativity in the city: what role for science festivals?

Editor’s note: many cities, regions and countries aspire to become ‘centers of excellence’ in science and technology for economic prosperity. Scientists strive to make breakthroughs and businesspeople seek to bring them into the marketplace. However, members of the public often have a hard time comprehending the associated scientific jargon, or merely recognizing what is going on behind the walls where scientists conduct their research.

In order to solve the problem associated with ‘science literacy’, some city-regions are now attempting to bridge between the science community and the general public by designing outreach programs. One of the most well known of such bridge programs is the Cambridge Science Festival (partly captured in the photo by Kris Olds to the right) in the US state of Massachusetts.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Canada’s “powerhouse of research and innovation“, held its first science festival, titled Science Rendezvous, on May 10, 2008. This entry is designed to convey some features of the event, and is written from the perspective of a South Korean PhD student (Jae-Youl Lee), based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, though kindly hosted for six months by the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies (with field work helpfully supported via the Government of Canada’s Canadian Studies program). Jae-Youl’s report, which is based upon a day’s worth of field notes, pays particular attention to the ways through which Science Rendezvous, as a cultural event, helps people understand the current whereabouts of science in the City of Toronto.

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Science Rendezvous: Toronto’s New Science Festival

Hosting an annual science festival is becoming increasingly popular around the world – see, for example, the Edinburgh International Science Festival (Scotland), the Australian Science Festival, Pittsburgh’s SciTech Spectacular (United States), and two Cambridge Science Festivals (one in England and the other in the Boston area). While some festivals have existed for more than a decade (e.g., Edinburgh, Australia, and Cambridge in England), others were recently launched (e.g., Cambridge in the US). Most of the science festivals are organized by a consortium of various levels of government, universities and research institutions, but some such as Australian Science Festival are led by private entities which collect fees. In any case, science festivals are usually composed of public lectures and demonstrations, panel discussions, guided tours, exhibitions, hand-on experiments, etc.

Before launching a science festival, learning from existing events is a common practice. For example, the pioneers of Australia Science Festival were inspired by its Scottish counterpart in the late 1980s (for details, see here). Similarly, Dr. Dwayne Miller, professor of chemistry and physics at University of Toronto (UT), proposed Science Rendezvous after he experienced Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften in Berlin (Germany) three years ago. Dr. Miller told the Globe and Mail (April 26. 2008), a media partner to the Rendezvous, that “I was amazed to see the way in which the locals were getting into [science]”. The experience led him to organize Toronto’s science festival in partnership with not only UT’s collaborators, but also the university’s main local competitors (Ryerson University and York University). On the day of Science Rendezvous, citizens of all ages were invited to a dozen locations (including universities, research institutions, hospitals, shopping malls and even pubs) throughout the metropolitan area.

Science Rendezvous in Discovery District

The City of Toronto officially designated a downtown area bounded by Bloor Street, Bay Street, Dundas Street West, and Spadina Avenue as Toronto’s Discovery District in June 2002 (see this map). Biomedical and related sciences were chosen as the District’s strategic sector, and the City has implemented supporting policies in cooperation with provincial and federal governments, business communities, universities, and research institutions. The key project is the building of MaRS Centre, with Phase I of MaRS opened in September 2005.

As a part of Science Rendezvous, a select number of biomedical research labs at the MaRS Centre were accessible to the public in guided tours. Dr. William Wei briefly introduced the main function of MaRS in the beginning of a tour, in which he showed the use of 3-D display technology in new drug development. In a nutshell, the MaRS Centre was built to overcome a widely known problem in the biomedical industry: it normally takes for twelve to fifteen years to complete all the phases of preclinical and clinical tests to get a drug approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but a pharmaceutical patent expires in twenty years (for details, also read Profile 2008: Pharmaceutical Industry compiled by PhRMA, or Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America). In other words, the owner of a pharmaceutical patent enjoys its commercial benefit for only five to eight years before generic drug makers can use it for free. The Centre’s key concept of ‘convergence’, in which biomedical scientists, businesspeople, investors, and legal services providers locate together, is believed to shorten the time of drug approval so that MaRS tenants can get commercial benefits for a longer period.

The tours at MaRS Centre generated an additional dimension of convergence – they sought to be one with the public. Diverse visitors endeavored to achieve their own goals in the tours. For example, people in my tour group included parents with kids, a science journalist considering his new office in the Discovery District, a doctoral student in biomedical science from University of Waterloo in search of her future career, an accountant accompanied by his wife who works for Ontario government, etc.

The tour provided great opportunities for socializing as well as learning. Not only were a couple of kids in white medical lab coats happy at seeing cells through a microscope at Dr. Li Zhang’s cellar biology laboratory, but adult people were also enthusiastic. To some participants, the tours provided a venue for doing job-related activities. For example, a female employee working for corporate relations division at UT Scarborough was busying exchanging business cards with MaRS people at every presentation. It was her role to help undergraduate students at the school get hired at this state-of-the-art facility.

Right across the University Avenue, Mount Sinai Hospital also prepared programs for visitors (see this map again). Like MaRS, the Hospital had guided tours to upper-floor research labs, where the DNA of non-human organisms such as fruit flies was researched to advance our knowledge about cancer. Unlike MaRS, the Hospital opened booths for volunteers’ demonstrations and visitors’ hands-on experiments. At the booths, visitors learned how to extract DNA from a banana, tested their own knowledge about genetics, watched forensics demonstrations, etc.

Café Scientifique

Besides places of seeing and doing science, Science Rendezvous also offered places of talking about science. The Café Scientifique at The Rivoli, a pub in Queens West area, was such a place. The Café was not a special event prepared for the Rendezvous. Instead, the Café have been a monthly event in Toronto. Ontario Science Centre organizes the regular meeting. Begun in Leeds (United Kingdom) in 1998, the Café Scientifique is spreading around the world (link here if you want to find one near you, and here for Canadian offerings). At any Café Scientifique, all the participants are encouraged to discuss current issues related to science and technology over coffee, beer, or wine. As the organizer of Toronto’s Café Scientifique emphasizes, “it’s not a lecture! It’s a place for group discussion and audience involvement is the most important ingredient”. However, the Café usually begins with expert presentations.

Following the conventional procedure of holding a Café Scientifique, four panel debaters were invited to present their opinions on the topic of the day. The issue was the relationship between science and media. All the experts showed concerns over misleading and selective media reports about scientific discoveries. In particular, they pointed out, the media exaggerates the commercial benefit of science discoveries such as stem-cell research, pays far more attention to reporting ‘new’ discovery than helping people get out of science illiteracy, and neglects reporting perspectives different from (or, opposed to) the dominant view. For example, Shelly Ungar, sociology professor at University of Toronto Mississauga, pointed out the ‘silencing’ of politically and socially unacceptable scientific findings such as one that found out ‘passive smoking may not kill’. Similarly commenting on the view on climate change, Stephen Strauss argued, the fundamentally different methodology between science and media (i.e. experimental modeling vs. narrative style) is the main reason for the distortion and selectiveness common in the media report. When the expert presentations were all finished, the moderator of the Café encouraged the audience to participate in small group discussions about the issue.

TO Live with Science Culture

Toronto’s Mayor David Miller proclaims in the Agenda for Prosperity (p.2) that “we must put creativity at the heart of Toronto’s economic development strategy.” The Agenda’s supporting document Creative City Planning Framework (p.24) spells out two ways through which creativity can drive the City’s economy. The first is to develop an array of specific sectors such as cultural industries (for details, see Imagine a Toronto) and high-tech industries. The second is to normalize creativity as an everyday practice among citizens. In other words, encouraging citizens to behave more creatively is also believed to drive the City’s economy.

At Science Rendezvous, activities associated with the sciences were mobilized as a medium to cultivate creativity and awareness amongst Torontorians. As I described above, they were seeing, doing, listening to, and talking about, sciences throughout the City. As Dr. Ron Pearlman, biologist at York University put it, they wanted to make the Rendezvous “more of a cultural activity” (Globe and Mail, April 26, 2008) such that experiencing and enjoying sciences as such became part of the cultural life of the City.

It remains to be seen whether a more creative culture generates economic value and to what extent the benefits spread over the society. Nevertheless, in my observations, Science Rendezvous seemed to help people understand the current whereabouts of the sciences, which will surely affect their lives in the future. Visitors to the places where I moved through during Science Rendezvous certainly have their own answers to questions such as why the MaRS Centre is necessary, what scientists at the Centre do, how studying fruit flies helps in the treatment cancers, and why people should be cautious while reading media reports about the sciences.

Jae-Youl Lee

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