Science cafés are forums where scientists discuss or debate on topical and thought provoking scientific issues with the public in a relaxed, informal and accessible way. Held at coffee houses or restaurants or any other informal setting, the cafes are known for their informality and friendly atmosphere and are a good way of getting people interested in science and on ongoing public conversations on science.
The Kenya science cafés were inspired by the realisation that plenty of interesting and useful scientific research was taking place in Kenya, but this was hardly communicated or shared with the public. Furthermore, existing communication or dissemination practices within the scientific community are limited. An innovative approach was needed to help Kenyans learn and embrace the scientific research done in the country.
Scientific research in Kenya focuses primarily on developmental areas, such as health, agriculture and environment, all of which are crucial to improving people’s standards of living in the country. Over the last few years, there has been a growing emphasis on communicating science to the public to help boost the practical use of scientific knowledge and its application in policymaking. A 2006 action plan developed at the African Ministerial conference on Science and Technology (AMCOST), called for the active engagement of policymakers, politicians, youth, women, private industry and other groups of stakeholders in scientific and technological development. The authors warned that “scientific and technological development would not be achieved in Africa without the participation and support of the populace and their political institutions.
In 2008, with the aim of engaging the Kenyan public with science, an adaptation of the science café model, first established in the UK in 1997, was started in Nairobi. The first ever Kenyan science café had a guest list of only 25 people. Numbers grew as the events attracted both old and new media coverage, like blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
Science communication in a developing country like Kenya is as interesting as it is challenging. The cafés rapidly became popular among the urban Nairobi middle-class, who happily sipped their drinks as they discussed scientific research and tweeted, blogged and checked the facts on their smart phones. The excitement at each session demonstrated the public’s enthusiasm to interact with scientists and debate scientific issues.
In an effort to expand beyond of this audience, we transported the science café model to semi-rural and lower socio-economic communities within Kenya. However, these efforts rely heavily on strategic plan-ning, organisation and finance. Engaging these audiences with science was both an insightful and eye-opening experience. Most of the communities are starved for information and thus, the engagement exercise unwittingly turned into public education, with the community expecting more than just information. In contrast to urban science cafés, cafés in semi-urban areas, with lower socio-economic communities, are much richer and the questions asked are of more practical relevance to their everyday lives.
In the three years since the cafés began, the events have taught us much about the willingness of scientists to speak to the public and the public’s appetite for dialogue and debate.
The Kenyan Science Cafés are currently focusing on training and building the capacity of future science café organisers. Following a capacity building workshop in September 2010, plans by one of the trainees are underway to use the science café model to engage scientists, science journalists and the public. The aim of these journalism-focused cafés is to help science journalists to not only report on science stories from a scientist’s point of view, but also from that of the public.
Major lessons learnt from the science café model are that African scientists are open and willing to engage with the public and that there is certainly an appetite for relevant and appropriately packaged scientific research among the Kenyan public. African science communicators should take advantage of these lessons to promote public engagement of science throughout Africa. For more information, visit www.cafescientifique.org.