“Who knows?” Leiden, ESOF 2022 and the future of science. Interview with Michael Matlosz

29.12.2020 – 08.00 – The nomination of Trieste for “European City of Science”, with the past ESOF 2020 Convention, shouldn’t be considered as an isolated event, but one integral part of the many ESOF conventions experimented by the EuroScience Open Forum during the past twenty years.
The organization, which dates back to the 1997, has always been a beacon of science communication; not only for dialogue between science and society, but also between scientists themselves. The communication aspect maybe was accessory during the Nineties, but it has evolved during the mid 2000s and now, during the Coronavirus pandemic, how to communicate scientific developments has become a central issue.
In this context, the EuroScience Open Forum explicitly presents itself as a supranational organization, whose range of action extends to the entire European Union. ESOF describes itself as “pan-European”; and Trieste was chosen in this area, because it is recognized as an international city, whose culture (and history) always has been multinational and multicultural.
On the other hand, the ESOF model draws on the North American experience of AAAS which for centuries has pursued a model of science based on debate and dialogue. The comparison with ESOF in this area is not accidental; also the EuroScience Open Forum proposes – with its network of scientific cities – a vision of the United States of Europe, where the individual city counts more than the nation.

To better understand the history of the Euro Science OpenForum, in relation to Trieste, as well as to the Europe in which it was born, Trieste All News interviewed Prof. Michael Matlosz, president of ESOF. An opportunity to have an international look at the city and to reflect on past and future ESOF.

I would like to begin from where everything originates: how the idea behind EuroScience Open Forum came to fruition?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is relatively a long standing institution in the United States; it’s a similar institution to what EuroScience is trying to become, even if we’re much smaller and much more recent. Our association, “EuroScience” was started in 1997, so roughly a century and a half after the americans (1848); it was a decision of the EuroScience Governing Board in 2002 to organize an annual meeting similar to what the americans were doing. Prof Carl Johan Sundberg, current treasurer of Euroscience, was at that time vice president of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (Sweden). He helped to organize the very, first, event in 2004. It was a relatively small event, for only two days duration, with about 40 sections and 200 participants. So that’s how the operation started; it was already called the EuroScience Open Forum in 2004.

How has ESOF changed during all these years?
Are there any turning points, for example an “historical” edition or more simply ESOF changed progressively during time?

I would say things changed progressively over time; following the first edition at Stockholm (2004), a second edition of similar size of 800 participants was organized in Munich (2006); and beginning with the third edition in Barcellona in 2008 and Turin in 2010, the conference grew in size; and from the spanish edition onwards has always included in addition to the ESOF event itself the “Science in the City Festival” for direct contact and dialogue with citizens of most cities. For the 2012 edition of ESOF, in Dublin (Ireland), we used for the first time the label “European City of Science”, following with Copenaghen in 2014, Manchester in 2016 and Toulouse in 2018, the number of participants grew constantly. ESOF 2020 in Trieste, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was the first ESOF conference to be held in a hybrid format, both physical and remote participation. It was very successful in that format with more than 2500 participants with roughly 1000 were physically present in Trieste and another 1500 were active virtually online; so, as you can see, ESOF has evolved progressively over time.

Personally what has been your favorite ESOF edition?

Well, I’m relatively new to Euroscience; my first experience was at the Manchester edition in 2016 and then in 2018 I was elected president of EuroScience at Toulouse and very actively involved with the preparations for ESOF 2020 in Trieste.
In my experience each of these editions – Manchester, Toulouse and Trieste – were very successful, each in its own way. And that’s the spirit of ESOF. Frankly I cannot choose a favorite ESOF: each of them provides a common thread with a local flavour; which is highlighting scientific events and the role of science inside society; exchange cross-cutting developments in scientific professional practice including open science, citizen science, responsible science and technology; and dialogue, of course, among scientists and with interested stakeholders in the general public; but only in a setting which is different and appropriate to the different european cities; and so the emphasis is different on each own and I admittedly enjoy all three of them in my small experience.

Foto di esof.eu

Why Trieste for this last edition?
Italy was already present with Turin, during the 2010 edition…

There is no rule forbidding the need of each host to be located in the same country as previous host cities; and of course Trieste is also very different from Turin. The main motivation of the choice was the desire of EuroScience to increase openness, visibility and exchange between western europe and central-eastern europe. And so we look at Trieste as an opportunity really to opening and making ESOF more visible and more attractive and available to central-eastern countries, in particular the action undertaken by Trieste in relations of ESOF with Slovenia and Croatia and some other central-eastern european countries were very important for Euroscience and also for the future of ESOF.
That was a major factor in the choice of Trieste.

Did the idea of using the Porto Vecchio (the old Hapsburg port) appear from the beginning or was it a subsequent novelty?

Yes, the idea of using “Porto Vecchio” was a major element in the project for ESOF 2020 from the very beginning; a key element also in the decision of EuroScience to choose Trieste. As a free harbour, Porto Vecchio was very emblematic of the motto chosen for Trieste for ESOF 2020: “Freedom for science, science for freedom”. And, as I mentioned earlier, Porto Vecchio was very important for its openness to central and eastern Europe. So the history of Trieste is very different from the history of Turin; both the cities are in Italy, but not in the same part and not in the same historical tradition.

What was the best moment of ESOF 2020 and what objectively was missing?

What objectively was missing in Trieste when compared to more recent ESOF events such as Manchester or Toulouse was the large number of physical participants and the network opportunities; the reason was of course the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions on physical participation imposed by the health authorities. Nevertheless we were very lucky to have re-positioned the date of ESOF 2020 in the early september, which was right between the first wave and the second wave of the epidemic in Italy. And so despite the fact of not being able to have as many participants in the past we were very happy to welcome over a thousand participants physically. That allowed some networking although less obviously of what was possibile in previous years. So the basic idea of that was to combine the virtual event with the hybrid, to have at least some physical presence.
The number of one thousand participants was much higher than my most optimistic hopes when we started the postponement in the spring. Because we attached a lot of importance on the networking and the context; we chose not to organize ESOF as a totally virtual event.

The best moment for me, personally, was the opening ceremony; and that because I was physically there and I did not believe, until three or four weeks before the event, I really didn’t believe that would be possible, for me to be there, present in person. So for me that was the highlight, to be there to open the event; extremely proud of all those who worked so hard to transform in record time the initial physical event in a highly, successful, hybrid, format. We receive a lot of very, very positive feedback on the hybrid format; people were physically present, but also remotely participating. They really appreciated our efforts to make the event as accessible as possible, given the pandemic.

ESOF has been sometimes criticized for an excessive emphasis on hard science: is it true?
There is a mistreat of social sciences or is it an unjust bias?

I think any criticism of excessive emphasis on hard sciences is untrue; the goal of ESOF is to really be a multidisciplinary conference, covering all areas of science, including physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, synergies. And when the program of an ESOF event is set up, we spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that we have good multi disciplinary balance between the different parts of the program. And in addition to that not only the different advances in sciences are presented, but also very important to us of EuroScience are the crosscutting interdisciplinary topics. Also, a real reflection of our scientific practices on what scientists do and how they interact with society across all disciplines. One example of this is the career program which is present at every single ESOF and offers opportunities for young and early career researchers. And we have a lot of sessions in ESOF 2020, in Trieste, on science communication, open sciences challenges and many other cross cutting issues that do not depend on a specific scientific discipline.

How to communicate science has been one the most important topics of the last ESOF; but is it really always possible to explain every scientific argument?
Or is there a level of complexity beyond what scientific journalism can achieve?

Objectively speaking sometimes certain scientific developments and advance are more difficult to present in detail than others due to their highly technical nature, but in most cases It is possible to present to the general public the basic ideas behind the development and why the recent advances have contributed to increasing knowledge and in many cases can also contribute to progress and well being in society.
In connection, scientific journalism can help facilitate comprehension for the general public of the various sciences developments. But the distrust in the public regarding the sciences and many other areas is a much more difficult issue. The general phenomenon of contemporary societies in which something I would call “elitist” authority is often contested as out of touch with the reality experienced by the general population.
Many institutions had faced challenges and disconnection nonetheless which are basic institutions of representative democracy. This is also a major concern for science, for scientific method and for the science professions. At EuroScience we believe that communication in this context cannot be a “one way” operation: with scientists who know something telling general citizens who do not know what is right and what is not. That is not true communication. True communication requires dialogue and is bidirectional. For this reason we felt so strongly that, during this period of Covid pandemic, ESOF 2020 would not be canceled or postponed to another year, but we thought a hybrid format to maintain an essential dialogue between science and society. Trieste was also able to maintain the Science and the City Festival; I think it’s that kind of dialogue – a “two way” dialogue – is the only way to make advance in scientific research relevant and understandable to the general public and also that they appreciate what science does and what it can offer to society.


How is the next ESOF 2022 going?
How Leiden wants to differentiate itself from Trieste?

Preparations for ESOF 2022 is going very well; in addition to the hybrid format which we did not expect to test in Trieste, that was kind imposed on us by the pandemic, for Leiden it is planned that it will be totally hybrid; both physical and virtual. We will be going further by adding two other “Leiden” as European City of Science and central hub for ESOF 2022; a number of regional sites, in other parts of Europe to create an even stronger pan-european network experience. We can not announce them yet because we’re still in negotiations with a good number of sites in Europe, but the idea is that it will be a central hub in Leiden and there will be other events organized in different parts of Europe, that they will be associated with ESOF2022.

Due to the necessity of social distancing the “Science in the City Festival” of Trieste was extended from the initial 4 weeks plan to a little more than 3 months; and Leiden is going to go much further beyond that, putting together as European City of Science a full three hundred sixty five days Euro programme of events in Leiden for the population of the city.
So that is going to be something very important, especially regarding the dialogue with the citizens. The motto that Leiden group has chosen for the European city of science program is very simple, but also very powerful: “Who knows?”
“Who knows” is a highly connective term which can mean very different things; “Who knows?” in the sense of does it matter? But also “Who knows?” in the sense “who are the authorities that deliver reliable information?” There are many other ways in english of thinking an expression like “Who knows”; when you put a question mark on it, when not and other things like that. It actually opens up completely this question of what is science, how is it science interpreted and how is it made available for debate in society. It’s a motto very close to the type of issue about science communication; dialogue will surely be an important aspect. In many ways It’s right on target with contemporary issues.

The other thing is that ESOF 2022, as a year long operation, will offer more opportunities to the regional cities as well; they will offer digital opportunities for people to participate in ESOF 2022.

We can almost say there will be a multi-polar ESOF, with multiple centres…

Yes! There will be a central hub in Leiden and there will be events in regional sites associated with ESOF 2022. So the idea is to make it more pan-european, because the other sites will be in other parts of Europe geographically and also opening up accessibility to more people. At the same time everything will be hybrid, everything will be both online and physical. We can almost say that Trieste started this, with opening up to the hybrid format and will be going further with actually creating a network format with the hybrid for everything so that more people can become involved in the ESOF experience.

[Prof. Michael Matlosz acquired his PhD in electrochemical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in the US.
In 1985, he joined the department of materials science at the and the University of Lorraine in France in 1993, where he currently serves as a Professor.
He is also President of the UNIT Foundation and an elected member of the National Academy of Technologies of France. From 2014 to 2017, he served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the in Paris.
From 2015-2017, he served as the President of Science Europe, an association of major organizations involved in research and research funding in Europe.
In 2018, Prof. Matlosz began his four-year term as President of EuroScience
]

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