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Speech directeur Meta Knol @LERU 2022

Twintig jaar geleden ging de League of European Research Universities (LERU) van start in Leiden. Dat jubileum werd op 19 en 20 mei 2022 gevierd met een groot congres over een urgent thema: hoe draagt wetenschap bij aan duurzame en veerkrachtige samenlevingen? Directeur van Leiden European City of Science 2022 Meta Knol gaf onderstaande speech als antwoord op deze vraag.

(De speech is in het Engels uitgesproken.)







(foto: Laura Keustermans - Twitter)

Leiden, 20 May, 2022

Yes indeed, in case you did not notice yet: this year, Leiden is the European City of Science.

But first, let me congratulate LERU on it’s 20th anniversary. It’s a great opportunity to welcome you all in Leiden. Many thanks to Kurt Deketelaere and the LERU team for sharing this wonderful partnership, and to Leiden University for the excellent hosting.

It is an honor and a privilege to tell you more about Leiden European City of Science and in particular, about the way we aim to connect science with society, for the sake of a sustainable future for all of us.

Indeed, Leiden is the very first European city to present a year-long science festival for anyone with a curious mind. It is an initiative of our Founding Partners: the city of Leiden, Leiden University, Leiden University Medical Center and of course, the Leiden University of Applied Sciences, which can only take place thanks to the partnership with EuroScience in Strasbourg and thanks to the crucial support of the European Commission.

So what exactly is Leiden European City of Science 2022? We are presenting a science festival of 365 days. In doing so, we do not only focus on the broad spectrum of academic disciplines, but moreover on the whole spectrum of human knowledge – including arts & culture, crafts, know-how and expertise. We do this on local, national and international levels, for anyone with a curious mind.

Our Year of Events is brimming with activities, events, workshops, exhibitions, lectures and adventures. Together with local communities, we co-create hundreds of small scaled, but highly impactful events. Every single day. Every step along the way.

But of course, we also present high-profile scientific events. A highlight of the Year is the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), developed in close partnership with EuroScience, and chaired by two scientific Champions from Leiden University: professor Ferry Breedveld and professor Corinne Hofman. It is the largest interdisciplinary science conference in Europe. It will take place for the 10th time and trust me, the Leiden2022 edition will be fundamentally innovated compared to earlier editions.

The theme of ESOF2022 is Crossing Borders, Engaged Science, Resilient Societies, which is completely in line with our aim to connect science with society, but also resonates with LERU’s focus on the role of academic institutions in building resilient and sustainable societies, both of which tap into an overall, growing interest among international academic communities to become part of a societal ecosystems rather than standing next, or even above society.

Also, in September, on the occasion of the European Year of Youth, we will host a special Young Talent Week. From more than 40 countries across the world, curious young researchers aged 14 to 20 years will travel to Leiden for the finals of the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS). They already won their national contests, and will gather in Leiden to compete for the very best Science Awards.

And, we are really proud to also present a brand-new event, developed in close collaboration with the European Commission, dedicated to early career researchers and PhD’s aged 21 to 30 years old. The EU TalentOn is a highly promising event: a 4-days hackaton in which we invite the brightest young minds of universities across Europe to step into our pressure cookers in order to find solutions for the most challenging issues of our time: climate adaptation, beating cancer, smart cities, and achieving healthy soils and waters. As such, TalentOn participants may actively contribute to the five Missions of the European Commission. Which is the way it should be, because the future is literally in the hands of these new generations. So please, check out our EU TalentOn website and nominate the most promising students of your LERU-universities to join us in Leiden, in September.

But. As I said, we are also committed to develop small-scaled activities on a hyperlocal scale, in a very unique program that we call Knowledge throughout the Neighborhoods. Because if we SAY we aim to connect science with society, we are only worth your trust if we actually DO it. This is key. It is very important.

WHY? Why is it important? As scientific and civil communities, we are facing major challenges. I am sure you know to what I am referring to here. And the thing is, in a globalized and highly interconnected world, we really are in it together. As societies, we need even higher levels of collaboration to be able to find the necessary solutions. But such collaborations are only successful if they are based on a fundamental level of mutual trust. As you are most certainly aware, the level of trust in science in our European societies is still relatively high. But trust as such is a very vulnerable asset

Among American republicans for example, trust in science is rapidly diminishing. Which is not so very surprising, because you probably all remember who said, just a few years ago: “I don’t think science knows, actually.” In this era of post-thruth, in our digitized and mediatized societies there is a continuous overflow of misinformation, fake news, deep fake and filter bubbles. This urges us to reposition relationships between science and society, in order to seek new models for integrating and embedding reliable knowledge systems in our societal structures. Therefore, as an overarching narrative for Leiden European City of Science, we chose WHO KNOWS. Because: who has the authority on knowledge these days? Who knows what we do not know yet? And who knows what is yet to be discovered?

As an academic community, we need to focus on Public Engagement with Science. Which is more than a way of Science Communication through the marketing departments of your universities. It is also about Science Education, Open Science, and Citizen Science. It is about new forms of stakeholder management and about opening up your academic networks. It is about finding new ways to create impact, by means of co-creation, participatory events and fresh, bottom-up practices. It is not only about broadcasting but also about listening. It requires creativity and the willingness to experiment.

So then, if that is the case, how do we make it spin at Leiden European City of Science? There is basically only one answer: together. Which means, in our case, that we work for and foremost with the so-called non-usual suspects: people that would normally not be engaged in scientific circles or activities. In order to do that, we are taking a strong, value[1]driven approach: we aim to be generous, we love new adventures, we are empathic and of course, we are really curious about people, and about their interest in science. Now, we have been doing this for a while: preparing the whole year, starting it as of January 1 st, during the pandemic and the last lockdown, until the 140th day of our program, which is today. So what have we learned so far? I’d like to share a few of our learnings with you.

First of all: the messy stuff wins. If you want to work with new audiences, you have to let go of fixed formats, you have to let go of control. If trust is the key issue, you have to build on trust, and allow spontaneous, original ideas to win from fixed formats – every step along the way! And although this might seem contrary to scientific practices, in this case it is crucial to not let the rational get in the way of the intuitive. Because in order to foster and stimulate ‘real’ bottom-up ownership, you need to cherish originality, expression, and authenticity.

Learning no. 2 – it won’t surprise you: be generous. Because bottom-up inclusivity only works of you are performing continuous bias checks: upon yourself, within your team, with regard to the people you are encountering along the way. This line of work requires conditional forms of leadership. It also requires that you keep on reaching beyond your own networks – definitely easier said than done. But if you do so, you may able to follow the pathway form public awareness, to public engagement, to ‘real’ public participation.

Learning no 3. Yes. Of course. It is all about curiosity. Because curiosity is made in heaven. It opens up boxes and possibilities, it allows you to take unexpected corners, it tempts people to open up their brains and their senses. And moreover, the power of curiosity encompasses far beyond the classical, marketing-driven target groups and pre-fixed media strategies. Curiosity enables you to seek new audiences, in order to ignite, surprise and delight them, and enlight them with science, knowledge, art and expertise.

So then, HOW did we do it? Please meet our team. And I would like to point out the role of Lucien Geelhoed, our intendant, the architect of the year, who designed the conceptual framework of Leiden European City of Science.

We began in 2020, and amidst the pandemic, and during the first half year of 2021, we rented an artist’s studio and build a wall with 365 clippers, one for each day of the year. We gave massive amounts of online presentations and invited anyone with a curious mind to propose so-called topics-of-the-day. By July 1 st, we could have filled three years with all the interesting topics that were suggested to us, bottom-up, by a superdiverse crowd of people, reflecting society as a whole.

We chose 365 of them and bundled these into a fancy tear-off calendar.

As of November 10, when we launched the Leiden2022 program, we started distributing these free calendars all across Leiden and its surroundings. On the 22nd of January Minister Dijkgraaf officially opened the year in a film-première, because The Netherlands was still in lockdown. But as of mid-February, we could gradually start our chain of small scaled, hyperlocal live activities. Let me explain how it works. Each activity is being produced by a local ‘owner-of-the-day’, which might be a school teacher, a social worker, an artist, a volunteer or an active citizen with a curious mind. We provide them with a micro-credit of 500 euro’s, some coaching and an overall communication toolkit. For the scientists involved, we defined only two rules. The first of which, is that they are not allowed to stay in their institution. And the 2nd, that they are not allowed to give lectures. And I must say, this works really well.

For example, on February 14, the topic-of-the-day was Dada and Studio Moio, a social education project for high-school dropouts, organized a visual poetry workshop inspired by dadaism.

On February 21, the topic was Mother Tongue. In one of Leiden’s community centers, parents of multilingual children could participate in a workshop with a speech therapist.

On April 8, students presented a supercool performance with liquid nitrogen on a market in the North of Leiden. The topic of the day was superconductivity. Magic.

On a beautiful sunny day a week later, the neighborhood committee of Vreewijk invited their neighbors to an open-air pop-up science event on Quantum. They were served quantum soup and mini-lectures on quantum theory and quantum computing. Over 100 people came. Truly splendid.

Later that month, the topic was soil. In the beautiful Hortus Botanicus, where the LERU[1]opening took place yesterday, families could visit a multi-sensory event with experiments, pop-up scientific presentations and a scavenger hunt – all about soil, plants and biodiversity.

And then, the last example: on May 3 a so-called Living Library was organized in a local library, on the initiative of professor Maartje van der Woude of Leiden University. Instead of reading a book, people could have a talk with a non-usual suspect: someone with Borderline syndrome, a former addict, or a Syrian refugee with a Jewish background. The topic-of-the[1]day was, of course, empathy.

But there’s more. Every day, people can send their questions to PO Box 71 and, with the support of the Citizen Science Lab of Leiden University, we are reaching out to scientists to seek for answers.

And you may have heard, we present a daily science and society radio show, Radio Weetlust. This morning, the 140th edition of 2022 took place, and the topic was: Bee.

And then, you know, one of the most rewarding features are the so-called VIPs: Very Important Presents. It’s the kind of things you don’t expect to happen, but that do happen anyway, because people are triggered. They are inspired and feel enabled to make the interest in science a part of their own, local efforts, community and identity. So this, for example, is a television series about the meaning of science produced by a local theatre company, the actors and actresses of which all have Down’s syndrom or an autism spectrum diagnosis. We didn’t do anything about this, it is 100% their own project. And it’s fabulous.

And there is much, much more. Not only LERU coming to town on the occasion of Leiden European City of Science, but many many more original, local initiatives that we did not initiate at all but that do happen anyway. Because somewhere, and somehow, we sparked some curiosity and managed to unleash new potential in Leiden’s civil society. People love science. They eat it for breakfast.

Is this a story about excellent science? Hardly. Is a story about thick engagement? Definitely!

So, to conclude, I would like to present a statement on Public Engagement with Science. Because as a former museum director, I have discovered that there is a world without walls, where science, creativity and society can meet and interact. And I firmly believe, that if we want to nurture and strengthen societal trust in science, and if universities want to take up their role to help building resilient and sustainable societies, and if they take this role seriously, they will need to develop and invest in new ways of connecting with us, citizens.

Thank you.