Tom Shakespeare

Café scientifique has been defined as “a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass
of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and

The background to Cafe scientifique in Britain was the long tradition of cafe philosophiques in France.  In the early 1990s, the cafe scientifique developed as an offshoot in cities such as Paris and Lyon.  In 1998, the idea was imported to Leeds by Duncan Dallas, a television producer.  The following year, a cafe owner began to operate a cafe scientifique in Nottingham.  In 2000, the Newcastle cafe scientifique was initiated by Tom Shakespeare as part of his university work in science engagement.

This history shows the diversity of reasons and approaches to running cafes, and the diversity of possible actors in the project.  Cafe scientifique is not a trademark or a regulated activity.  It takes various different forms and can be adapted to different cultural contexts.  Moreover, the cafe scientifique model can be used for other disciplines: the cafe philosophique which was its precursor, or cafes discussing culture or current affairs.

The common feature of all cafes is that they aim to take discussion of research and ideas and research outside the academy and into everyday life.  Key to this is holding meetings in non-academic venues, which might be a bar or a cafe or a restaurant or a theatre, but certainly not a classroom or lecture hall.  The atmosphere is convivial, so it’s helpful to be able to relax over a meal, or a glass of wine, or coffee, or whatever is cultural appropriate.

There is always an opening contribution from a speaker, usually some kind of expert and often an academic.  Sometimes there might be more than one speaker – a panel of people possibly.  This enables the inclusion of different perspectives, for example a scientist and an artist, or a doctor and an ethicist.  The presentation is not a lecture.  This means that powerpoint or other slides are usually avoided, and that the talk is not long.  Rather than the hour of a convention lecture, the talk usually lasts less than 30 minutes.  The aim is to give enough information to kick off the discussion.

The discussion is the core of the event.  Usually, a pause between the speaker and the discussion allows participants a comfort break, the chance to refresh their glasses, and most importantly the opportunity to reflect on what they have heard and develop a question or a contribution.  The goal is for the discussion to be more than a question and answer session centred on the speaker.  When a cafe takes off, it is because the participants are debating with each other, and contributing their own experiences or views.

The role of the moderator or facilitator is vital.  They set the tone of the event, putting people at their ease, ensuring that the speaker is asked to explain any jargon or technical detail, and keeping the discussion flowing.  If someone attempts to dominate the  debate, or becomes offensive or inappropriate, then the moderator’s role is to defuse the situation and move the conversation forward.

Cafe scientifques are usually run by a small group of people, who share the tasks of inviting speakers, publicising events, and running the evenings.  For example, it is often helpful to have a PA with a roaming microphone to ensure everyone can hear contributions, and a volunteer would then take the microphone around the room to each contributor as cued by the moderator.  Rarely is organising the cafe part of anyone’s job.  People may work in science, or education, or culture in their careers, or perhaps they own the cafe or bar, or perhaps they are just interested in the project.  There is no remuneration for speaking at or organising a cafe, although expenses may be paid.  Where there is no core funding, these costs are raised by passing around a hat.  It is rare for there to be a charge to attend a cafe, as the hope is to be accessible to all.

A cafe scientifique will often have a relationship to other science enterprises in a city or region.  For example, there is a network of science centres in Britain and many other countries.  They might contribute the venue, they may collaborate on inviting speakers, and they might help with publicity.  If there is a local university, this will be a rich source of speakers.  The university’s press office or outreach team might be able to suggest academics who are ready to share their research with a wider audience.  Local scientific industries might be able to contribute speakers, as might campaigning organisations such as environmental groups or disability groups.  When inviting someone with such a background, it is usually best to invite people from both sides of a debate: a molecular biologist versus an environmentalist, for example, when discussing GM foods.  A cafe scientifique is a forum for discussion of different perspectives, not an advocacy organisation for one perspective.

This independence is vital.  Most people in the science field have vested interests, either pro or anti science or particular research.  Cafe scientifique is neither pro nor anti science.  The philosophy is the belief that lay people have the right to be interested in science, to learn about it, and to discuss it.  Providing balanced debate is part of that, as is the commitment to accessibility.  If people are inspired or enraged by an evening at the cafe, and want to form a campaign or contribute their voices to changing policy, that is a powerful spin off, but it should happen outside the forum, not as part of it.

Cafe scientifique is part of the wider field of “public engagement with science”.  This notion is subtly different from the concept of “public understanding of science”.  The latter presumes that the public are ignorant, and need to be informed by an expert.  The hope is that through education, people will become more favourably disposed towards science.  The danger is that “PUS” becomes propoganda or public relations for science.  Public engagement has a different emphasis.  It assumes that lay people also have knowledge and “expertise through experience”.  Rather than being top down education, it emphasises two way dialogue. It suggests that scientists need to understand the public, as well as the public understanding science.  Public engagement implies an ultimate goal of democratising science and making science part of culture, two aspects which often form part of the ambition of the cafe scientifique movement.

Cafe scientifique is a type of informal learning, characterised by debate.  It does not have a specific didactic or educational aim.  Nor is it an ideal location for a formal consultation.  While scientists learn about the public and the public express their views on science, this is usually in an unstructured way.  Similarly any health education messages that might come up during debate on certain topics.  Often, the topic will inform people about diet or behaviour or reducing disease risks, but the point is to debate the science, not to promote health.  A cafe scientifique might be a useful springboard for a subsequent consultation process, and may be the first steps for someone who decides they want to return to formal education, but it should ideally preserve its sense of freedom and non-instrumentalism.

Cafe scientifique is a contribution to civic culture.  It brings people together face to face in an era where many interactions are virtual or via the media.  It offers a forum for the exchange of ideas in which every participant’s perspectives are valuable.  It overcomes the divide between academic and public, between expert and layperson.  Because there are no rules and no control from the centre, a cafe scientfique can fail to achieve these ideals, slipping back into a public lecture format and losing the democratic equality which makes it so fresh and powerful.  It can easily become just another vehicle for public understanding of science or for promotion of a particular institution or point of view.  But at its best, it is a radical and inspiring exchange between strangers united by a common zeal to discover and to debate.

Schools cafes

Cafe scientifique in schools, or junior cafe scientifique, or simply cafe sci, was again an import to Britain from France.  Cafe Scientifique Ltd won funding from the Wellcome Trust to create a network of cafe events in schools in the North of England.

The model is closely related to the evening cafe.  Again, the aim is to hold the event in a non-academic context. In schools, this means in a common room or dining area, not in a classroom, and outside the curriculum, meaning at lunch time or after the end of lessons.  The topics are whatever young people are interested in, but generally cover the same ground as the evening cafes.  The emphasis is often on the social or ethical dimensions of science: cafe sci is different from a science club, where people do practical experiments or learn facts about science.  A speaker is invited, whom might be a young scientist or another expert.  The talk is followed, as before, by debate.  However, the events are usually shorter, typically with a ten minute talk followed by twenty minutes or more of discussion.  Rarely would an event exceed an hour.

A key feature of cafe sci in schools, which distinguishes it from almost everything else that happens in compulsory education, is that the events are organised by students themselves.  They might be brought together by a teacher, but the hope is that they will form a group or committee, and do the work to make the event happen.  For example, they might decide on a speaker and invite them; they would publicise the event among their peers in school; they would host the event, chairing the discussion and thanking the speaker.  In this way, young people gain valuable experience in organisation and civic values, as well as any exposure to science and other ideas.

Cafe sci in schools is not just for those studying science.  It enables humanities students to remain literate in science, as well as enabling science students to explore ethical and sociological dimensions of their subject.    Moreover, it brings together younger students with older students: it is likely to be sixth formers who will take the lead in organising and running events, but younger people should also be involved, not least because they will form the next generation of organisers and continuity will be easier if the entire committee does not move on at once.

Schools cafes are a potentially very important initiative.  Unlike almost any other activiites in schools, they are not top down.  They emerge from the interests and culture of young people themselves.  They can potentially empower students to take an interest in key topics in science: bioethics, animal research, GM food, climate change.  Discussion in cafe sci gives students a chance to express their views and be heard, and develop skills in listening to others and defending their points of view.  The outcome is a generation of young people who are more confident about debate, better able to construct an argument, and more literate in science.  The aim is not to get young people to like science or to welcome technology, but to replace apathy and ignorance with engagement and interest.

Unlike the evening cafes, which are largely self sustaining and can spring up with minimal funding or other efforts, school cafes are hard to start and difficult to sustain.  This is partly because they go against the prevailing ethos of education, where students are passive recipients of knowledge.  It is partly because teenagers are not usually the most reliable or consistent organisers of activities, and may also face lots of different pressures from curricular and extra curricular commitments.  It may be difficult to find speakers.  It is certainly easier to make school cafes successful in schools which have a strong ethos and perhaps draw their pupils from more privileged backgrounds.

Generally, school cafes are most successful when there is a committed and inspiring teacher behind the scenes who can prompt the student committee.  Input from outside – for example from the team at Cafe Scientifique Ltd – has been vital in creating and sustaining cafes.  At this stage of the development of schools cafes, the effort is to find outside agencies – perhaps university outreach teams, or initiatives to promote achievement in schools, or to promote science education, or science centres – who can take on the role of supporting the school cafe movement and helping it become sustainable and embedded.