The world’s first open-science unconference

Jim Thomas explores the joys of SciBarCamp

Black and white photographs from the 1930s adorn the walls, depicting formal scholars at scientific meetings. Today, however, at the University of Toronto in Canada, a new generation of scientists is literally turning its back on such stuffy conventions. Over a hundred people stand in a circle for the opening of SciBarCamp – the world’s first open-science ‘unconference’. Be warned: this is not your grandparents’ idea of a scientific conference. It is way cooler.

User-generated gathering

If you are the sort of person who values a list of speakers, a pre-scheduled agenda and a few printed abstracts, this might not be your idea of a scientific conference either. SciBarCamp bills itself as a ‘user-generated’ gathering of scientists, artists and technologists. On the opening night, world-renowned quantum theorists are lined up alongside local artists to propose workshop topics for the weekend. Quirky titles such as ‘Open Source Drug Development’ and ‘Science Stuff in Second Life’ are scrawled down, pinned up, democratically voted on and assembled into an ad-hoc agenda. Long powerpoint presentations are banned. Interactivity is highly encouraged.

The result has a jamboree feel. One participant brought along a couple of Mars-rover robots for show and tell. Another has parked his solar racing car outside. An ad-hoc citizens’ jury about synthetic biology is followed by a percussive performance of Richard Feynman's speeches. Physicists and jazz singers lead discussions on whether technology makes us happy. Sci Fi writers seek help on plot details. At the ‘Quantum Mechanics For Ten Year Olds’ session, all questions from the audience receive an appropriately quantum answer of ‘Yes AND no’. Any remaining barrier between speaker and audience dissolves into laughter.

‘It’s a huge improvement on the regular science conference format – those usually suck the life and joy out of these things,’ says SciBarCamper Paul Bloore, a local software entrepreuner. His friend Melina Strathopoulos concurs. ‘Its a literal “confer-ence” where people are actually conferring,’ she points out, ‘rather than just an “attend-ance” .’
 
Nerdy origins

The origins of SciBarCamp lie outside the scientific community in the open-source software movement which organises ‘Foo Camps’ (invite-only programming meetings) and ‘Bar Camps’ as an open grassroots alternative. The use of the words Foo and Bar reflect a geek joke that is lost on the rest of us.

For the last two years, science journal Nature has coorganised SciFoo – an elite gathering of hand-picked scientists – at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Theoretical physicist Michael Nielsen and biochemist Eva Amsen were never invited, so decided to host their own open-access version instead – an idea first mooted by blogger Jamie McQuay. ‘We asked around and got so much positive feedback for the idea that there was no way we couldn’t organize it,’ explains Amsen. Now they and their collaborators are on a mission to bring SciBarCamping to the rest of the world. Copycat SciBarCamps are being considered for Calgary, Ottawa, Boston and even Tokyo. Without speakers to book or agendas to distribute, conference preparation is easy.

True to its nerdy origins, the internet played a big part in both the form and content of this first SciBarCamp. Organisation and registration were carried out by wiki (collaborative webpages). Discussions on the practice of ‘Science 2.0’ (the elements which make internet sites such as Google, Amazon and eBay successful) loomed large in the final agenda. Corie Lok of Nature Network, joined by local science librarian John Dupuis, kicked off the weekend with a session on how scientists were using online lab notebooks and videoing experiments for the web. 

Attracting wider publics to discuss science

Caught up in the fun, it is tempting to wish that all science conferences could be this way. But what makes SciBarCamp so appealing, its radical interdisciplinarity, is exactly why this is unlikely take over from the staid world of specialist conferences. Somehow, ‘PolymerChemistrySciBarCamp’ doesn’t have quite the same appeal. What SciBarCamp may offer, however, is a format for engaged science communities to draw wider publics into discussion about science. Imagine Cafe Scientifique meets Wikipedia – in a karaoke bar.

Because what is really exciting is the mix. At this inaugural SciBarCamp, the active participation of artists, writers, librarians and activists prevented proceedings from heading down a path of self-important scientism. The mingling of experts and laypeople kept the event relevant, credible and even radical – with a dangerous whiff of democracy in the air. After all, this time everybody sets the agenda – literally.

For more information on SciBarCamp see http://www.scibarcamp.org/ or the SciBarCamp discussion forums on Nature Network at http://network.nature.com/forum/
scibarcamp

Jim Thomas is from the ETC group, advocates on the impact of new technologies on the rural poor

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