Facilitating conversations from the ground up: Science Café SG
This is part of the “Capturing Conversations content programme”, which looks at how effectively senior executives today capture insights from internal and external meetings, and how the meetings space has evolved to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and new ideas.
© Singapore Café SG
As Singapore’s knowledge economy has developed, the growing concentration of professionals from various fields has instilled a considerable flowering of grassroots organisations across the country. Community-led events, the likes of Pecha Kucha and TedX forums have taken off in the city-state, highlighting the public’s interest in pulling together like-minded individuals for discussion and learning.
Along the same vein, consider Science Café SG, a monthly forum that seeks to raise scientific awareness among ordinary people. It is volunteer- and community-led, has almost no overheads, has little organisational structure and eschews any defined objectives in favour of simply fostering scientific dialogue among the curious.
Science Café SG’s roots are in the broad philosophical notion of scepticism. Fouridine Ang, a graphic designer and one of its co-founders, had previously lived in New York City, where she regularly attended talks, conferences and “Drinking skeptically” events organised by the Center for Inquiry in New York City.
When she moved back home to Singapore, she realised that no similar forum was available. Along with some friends, she started a sceptics group that met regularly in Singapore over drinks to pontificate over a wide variety of philosophical and contemporary issues. Although sessions were unstructured and fluid, attendees were bound by a fondness for critical thinking and debate.
“My starting point was scepticism,” says Ms Ang, citing the American astronomer Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
From scepticism to science
Over time Ms Ang became eager to focus conversations on scientific issues in the hope that greater scientific awareness could lead to greater “rationality” and critical thinking.
Ms Ang found inspiration in a loose global network, ScienceCafés.org. According to its website, “Science cafés are an informal, grassroots movement. No one organization controls them—what they are called, where they take place, and what topics they cover.”
Working off a simple, bootstrapping tutorial on Science Café’s website, Ms Ang and Preman Rajalingam, an educator, and former co-organiser of the events, co-founded the local Singapore chapter in 2012. They began organising monthly forums at The Pigeonhole and have now moved the venue to the Artistry, a café bar that offers a free weeknight space.
The format is simple. Science Café SG invites a scientist—or anybody whose job revolves around science—to speak on his/her chosen field for 20-45 minutes, before fielding questions from the audience, typically between 30 and 60 people. The event is open to the public—lawyers and teachers mingle with students—and promotion is largely through its Facebook group, meetup.com and word of mouth.
© Science Café SG
Correcting the world’s scientific fallacies—over coffee
Over the years, Singapore’s scientific research fraternity has grown and matured considerably, spurred by heavy government investment in the sector. Science PhDs from around the world have flocked to the city-state, with many joining labs in Biopolis, a biomedical research hub opened in 2003 and the adjacent Fusionopolis, opened in 2008 as a home for physical scientists and engineers.
“Singapore has been building up a strong research base and attracting many scientists of different fields to the country,” says Adrian Boey, a scientist and co-organiser of events.
However, many tend to operate in a vacuum. “I feel there’s still a large disconnect between the public and knowing what everyday scientists do,” he says. “People read about new discoveries in flashy headline-grabbing articles, but oftentimes these are just piecemeal bits and the vast majority of research goes unknown by the general public.”
Science Café SG seeks to correct scientific fallacies and misinformation while making accessible to ordinary people some of the more impenetrable research. It also provides scientists an opportunity to connect with the general public, in what Mr Boey considers to be a mutually beneficial exchange. “I think it gives scientists a chance to take a step back from their daily work routine and think about the bigger picture,” he says. “It’s a challenge sometimes to rethink and rephrase things so that a general audience will be able to understand, and I think that can only be good for the speakers.”
At a recent event Swaine Chen, a geneticist (and medical doctor) who is a senior research scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore, delivered a lecture on “The genomics revolution and why we haven’t cured everything yet.”. Among other clever rhetorical devices, Dr Chen relied on a baseball video clip—which illustrated the difficulty novice spectators might have in identifying on-field brilliance—as a metaphor for the chasm between genome sequencing and the actual comprehension of a particular sequence’s function.
Other Science Café SG topics in the past year include “How fragmented are Singapore’s forests?” by David Tan, an expert on South-east Asia’s birds; “Scientific explanations and acorns” by Lina Jansson, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Nanyang Technological University; and “From snake bites to lung cancer: How antibodies are changing the way we make drugs” by Deron Herr, an assistant professor at the department of pharmacology at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
As is clear from their speaker profiles, Science Café SG strives to promote knowledge in a range of scientific disciplines. Nevertheless, despite the availability of scientific talent in Singapore, Science Café SG still contends with the growing pains of any volunteer organisation in its infancy. “It’s still a struggle finding speakers at times,” says Mr Boey, who, like Ms Ang, has to somehow find time away from his full-time day job. “I would like it to become a more self-sustaining event, where speakers come to us and it’s easier to arrange events.”
Make it a regular
In the longer term, Ms Ang and Mr Boey are keen to organise Science Café sessions at secondary schools and junior colleges in Singapore. “I would like to see if we can get working scientists to talk to kids and let them know more about science,” says Mr Boey.
For the moment, these organisers are content in the knowledge that Science Café SG is fulfilling its original purpose. Every event draws a core group of regulars as well as first-timers dropping in; many leave feeling they have been part of a stimulating discussion.
Away from the bright lights of large conventions and exhibitions, community-led events like Science Café SG are adding colour to the tapestry of public life and discourse in Singapore. It is just one of many. Pecha Kucha and TedX forums, for instance, have also taken off. They are all essential elements of the diverse, global city that is Singapore today.