In 2004 I helped, with a group of young Japanese researchers, to introduce Science Cafes into Japan. We weren’t the only people in the country to think about the idea, but we were instrumental in creating buzz and a network, and (in my case at least) advising others in creating their own Science Cafes. You can read an academic article comparing some models of Science Cafes here:

Science Cafes were in my mind when I moved to Japan in 2003. The Cafe Scientifique movement was growing in the UK and it promised something fresh in science communication. Within the world of differing formats of science engagement (engaging scientists with non-scientists and vice-versa), Science Cafes seemed fresh. The idea that something as serious as science could be discussed in a bar or cafe, while people drank alcohol was new. But most striking was the fundamental aim of the Cafes: leveling the field between specialists and non-specialists so that they could learn from each other. These Cafes were not lectures. They were not venues where a passive audience would have their heads filled with knowledge from the experts. There would be transference of knowledge, but the participants would have a space where they could question, disagree, even argue with each other. If the topic was something like GMOs, renewable energy or nuclear power, the scientists could put forward their research and the other participants could question, discuss and put forward their own concerns. The non-scientists would leave with more scientific knowledge, and the scientists would have heard the concerns of lay people and take that back to their labs.

So this was the idea—a relatively level playing field where scientists and publics could engage with each other—and this idea was front and centre in my mind when I advised on the Science Cafes. We started our own, “Cafe Scientifique Tokyo” and built a website listing many of the Cafes around Japan. The number of Cafes grew and grew into over 100 (at their peak there were many more that we simply didn’t manage to list) and the mid-noughties can definitely be seen as a boom for Science Cafes everywhere, but especially so in Japan where multiple institutions started them.

But as far as I am concerned, in Japan, Science Cafes failed. Perhaps ‘failed’ is too strong a term, as they certainly achieved one part of the aim: the transference of scientific knowledge to non-specialists. But the aim of creating a space where publics could question scientists was not built into the events. There are several reasons why this failure happened:

  1. The events were not organized in a grass-roots type fashion, with interested members of the public taking part in running them. They were often created by research institutions, universities, government agencies etc.
  2. The physical spaces were not actual cafes or bars. They were often seminar rooms or conference spaces. The layout of the space meant that there was an automatic division between ‘audience’ (usually sat down together) and ‘expert’ (stood at the front, often with a microphone). In effect the space fitted the mould of a lecture and the participants easily slipped into that format.
  3. The facilitators were on the side of the scientists. Japan already has a culture of respect for hierarchy. Those with positions in education or research are granted high status. In a functioning Science Cafe the facilitator is there to level the field; they will often play devil’s advocate if the interaction seems ‘too’ respectful of the position given by the scientists in order to generate discussion and raise issues that are salient to the lay people (who may be afraid at first to raise these issues themselves). So often I would see facilitators placing the speakers on a pedestal, all ‘ooh, ahh, thank you for deigning to share your esteemed knowledge with us.’

It’s a shame. There was great potential in Science Cafes to generate not only interest in science, but to give scientists real-world issues to think about when they’re back in their labs. The boom seems to be over, though you’ll still see organizations running Science Cafes, ‘Science Salons’ or similar events. But these are not how I envisaged them at all. In effect they’re just lectures held in a different room. Japanese culture is already highly hierarchical. Science Cafes could have been a place to challenge this culture in a structured and safe way, not to destroy it but to give a voice to those further down the hierarchy. I think this could have benefitted everyone involved.

I regret not pushing more strongly, but live and learn as they say.