Café Scientifique is a grassroots public science initiative currently running in 42 towns across the United Kingdom and cities in other countries. At least twelve cafés outside the UK are organised by the British Council alone. Similar but independent events have also sprung up in many cities using variations of the "Café Scientifique" or "Science Café" monikers. Typically, one monthly evening meeting is organised in a café or bar to which one or several scientists are invited to talk in laymen's terms about their work in a topical or even controversial area. The events are known for their informal and friendly atmosphere, and are believed to improve the image of scientists and careers in science. Cafe Scientifique aims to demystify scientific research for the general public and empower non-scientists to more comfortably and accurately assess science and technology issues, particularly those that impact on social policy making.
Many Café Scientifique organisers choose to communicate with each other by means of a centrally-managed mailing list.
There also is a series of cafés run in schools. These are called Junior Café Scientifique.
In France it was started by scientists who thought they ought to inform the public more, and in the UK it was started by members of the public who wanted to know more about science. In both countries it moved out of an academic structure into popular locations, and thereby attracted audiences.
It started at a time in the UK where COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science(organised by the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science), thought that the public did not understand science and needed to be better educated and lectured to. Newspapers considered it very odd that people should go to a café, drink wine and discuss science rather than just gossip. However the public were becoming more concerned about topics like Mad Cow Disease, GM crops, cloning, etc.
During the last decade the subject has moved from Public Understanding through Science Communication to Public Engagement and has been embraced by academic disciplines, government departments, research institutes, politicians, educators and policy makers. When it started Café Scientifique was considered weird and avant-garde, however it is now enmeshed in a huge industry.
Although Café Scientifique is an idea rather than a particular place, the location is absolutely critical. It was completely unexpected that Cafés would spread so widely. Yet the ambience of a café – relaxed, informal, discursive, egalitarian – is what makes the science accessible. In a lecture theatre you expect to be lectured to, take notes and sit exams. In a café you expect to enjoy yourself, relax, discuss and enter or leave as you please. That means that discussion with a speaker (or anyone else) takes place on equal terms – not equality of knowledge, but equality of respect. So scientists need to respect members of the public as much as the public respects scientists.
What is the aim of the Café Scientifique? When the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks was asked this question after he had talked at a Café he said "The aim of the Cafes is to bring science back into culture". Whereas science was often seen as boring, difficult, mathematical and self-regulating, now it is seen as relevant, powerful, dangerous and important. It not only describes the universe, but considers climate change, maps out genes and watches how our brains function. So it is personally, globally and universally relevant.
Science is the same the world over, but cultures are very different. So Cafes have to engage and address their local culture, and they do this in many different ways. Although in Britain there is usually one speaker, in Denmark there are two (one non-scientist) and in France often four (as well as a band in the interval). In Japan more respect should be shown to old people, so questions and opinions are done by SMS onto a big screen, so that no one knows the age of the commentator. In Africa topics are down-to-earth – how to live with HIV, avoid Malaria or understand water purification. So in many ways the Cafes promote a cultural examination of science by local people.
Individual Cafes have many different names and often don’t require funding – they only pay the speaker’s travelling expenses by asking for donations from the audience. So Cafes provide the opportunity for individuals and groups to initiate many different forms – street science, comedy, music, theatrical readings, dancing, demonstration, etc.
Internet technology has provided the basis for the expansion of Cafes. The main website  has provided support for cafes to start up in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But now individual Cafes are using their websites to expand their audience and prolong the discussion.
Cafes have been set up in schools in France, Italy, Britain and now in Africa. Pupils are asked what subjects they would like to discuss, and are then asked to organise, advertise and chair the meeting, which should not take place in a classroom. Usually a speaker (younger rather than older) comes from a local university to talk at the school. Subjects can vary from Flying, Mobile Phones, and The Science of Love to Climate Change.
Finally, efforts are being made to take Cafes to areas which are problematical – to the countryside, Montana in the USA and Cockermouth in the Lake District, UK – to islands, Corfu in Greece and Orkney in Scotland – dangerous areas, Palestine – and immigrants or gypsies in Hungary and the UK.
- British Association for the Advancement of Science
- British Council
- Green Drinks
- Science festival
- Science outreach
- "Junior Café Scientifique Homepage". Retrieved 2006-05-08.
- "Committee on the Public Understanding of Science Homepage". Retrieved 2009-01-18.
- Café Scientifique Homepage
- sciencecafes.org - a website for the community of science cafes in the US, with information on finding cafes, presenting at a cafe, and starting your own
- Voice of America story on the Café Scientifique in Arlington, Virginia
- NOVA scienceNOW - includes information on resources available for science cafes, including video clips
- Cafés organised globally by the British Council
- New Scientist Article
- British Council page about Café Scientifique - includes some historical notes on Duncan Dallas and the Café.
- Café Scientifique Canada
- Network "Bar des sciences" in French
- Network "Caffè-scienza" in Italian
- Swedish science café website