Politics, Open Science and Research - I wish I'd gone to ESOF two years ago

Thoughts from the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse
Published in Microbiology
Politics, Open Science and Research - I wish I'd gone to ESOF two years ago

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It seems that I was wrong. Ten months ago, I changed my job. I put down the pipettes and hung up my lab coat to become a science communicator. Since then, I’ve been calling myself a Communications Officer but attending the enormous biennial ESOF Conference made me re-think. There is still a lot of researcher left in me and while I don’t want to give that up, I realised that it has made my view of science very narrow.

ESOF is Europe’s largest Open Science forum for anyone with an interest in science. Over 4,000 people including researchers, businesses, communicators, politicians and the public were represented at this enormous 6-day event with some session running up to 12 parallel talks. The scope was enormous and frankly a little daunting, leaving little option but to dive in and try to make sense of it all on day one. It quickly became clear that I would be in for an eye-opening experience.

For example, I really thought I was creative with my science communication. However, walking around the poster sessions I was astounded by the ideas people were using to promote research and scientific literacy. I tried out a prototype escape room where the aim was to use the immune system to kill Mycobacterium tuberculosis. I played an intricate card game to learn about chemistry and chemical bonding and I met a science drag queen who used drag to promote science to the LGBT community.

I was also very impressed by how politics and science integrated so well at ESOF. As a scientist, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been quite politically agnostic. After the Brexit vote and as Trump started dismantling important research institutions in the USA, I started to realise that researchers need to stand up for science in politics and society, but I never knew how. A lot of the ESOF sessions revolved around politics and how scientists can and should engage with policy makers to ensure that evidence is at the heart of new policies and laws. Researchers at the events expressed their frustrations with policy makers and vice versa which really highlighted the need for dialogue. Sense about Science stood out as great organisation which is engaging researchers all across Europe in political and social issues. Thanks to Sofie Vanthournout, the director of Sense About Science EU, I also took part in my first ever moving debate which is a great way of gauging consensus from groups.

Ethical and social issues were discussed a lot and it was enlightening to be involved in these talks with such a diverse audience. Inequality, reproducibility, doctoral training and open science were all hotly debated. The interesting thing was that the discussions with people from different countries and different levels of leadership meant that meaningful change felt possible. This was a little counterintuitive as I thought that the more interested parties there are in a debate, the harder it would be to reach consensus. I suppose that this is still true, however, what I didn’t consider is that for real changes to take hold, actions need to be taken across multiple different fields, from the PhD student to the government minister. Having them all in the room as the discussions took place helped to show where real progress could be made, as well as where some of the barriers were.

Despite having my eyes well and truly opened, there were a few sessions that I just couldn’t get my head around. I went to a talk on how we can use literature to communicate science and ended up sat in a packed room where people read long passages of Proust in French. It was a busy session and people seemed to get a lot out of it, but it completely passed me by. Maybe next time.

At the end of the conference, I found myself wishing I had been at the previous ESOF in Manchester in 2016. If I had been, I would have had a much bigger network across communication, politics and European funding agencies which is important for a young researcher as well as people looking to work outside of academia. I think I would have been much more interested in politics and policy both on a national and European level. With the contacts at ESOF, I would have been in a much better position to get involved in campaigns and debates. I also think I would have understood the funding climate in Europe much better which would have helped applying for grants in the European programs from the ERC. I’d imagine I would have also met a lot of national funding agencies which is crucial for young researchers, trying to make a name for themselves.

In 2020 the ESOF conference will be held in Trieste, I’m hoping to go and I would fully recommend it.

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