National Science Week 2009: 15 years of bringing research to the public

Norway’s nationwide research festival National Science Week was launched amid great fanfare 15 years ago. This year’s festival starts on Friday, Sept. 18.

For a full 10 days the festival, its hundreds of events, its overall theme and its slogan – “The art of survival – are bound to fuel the public’s curiosity.

It has become a tradition for the sitting government minister of research to officially open National Science Week. Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland will once again have that honor this year.

Photo: Morten Ryen

Photo: Morten Ryen

In the beginning

Clad in a business suit and wellington boots, Norway’s then Minister of Education, Research and Ecclesiastic Affairs Gudmund Hernes planted a sapling dubbed the Tree of Knowledge at National Science Week’s inaugural opening ceremony in Oslo in 1995. Today the tree has grown tall, and the festival has emerged as the foremost Nordic arena for information about science and research activities targeted toward the public.

Nationwide initiative

Spanning the entire country and with a broad scientific scope, Norway’s research festival is unlike informational events in other countries, which as a rule are associated with just one institution or limited to a single scientific discipline. In Norway, universities, university colleges, independent research institutes and companies pooled their resources right from the start, making National Science Week a huge collective initiative.

Although the Research Council of Norway has overall responsibility for nationwide coordination, the vast majority of events are organized at the local level. This enables the festival to reach a large public, even in less easily accessible corners of the country. Each year several thousand researchers take part in National Science Week, which is arguably Norway’s largest communal effort to promote culture and knowledge. Many festival organizers come from abroad to get new ideas and find inspiration.

Photo: Sidsel Flock Bachmann

Quick to implement new technology

A revolution in communication between people has been taking place as National Science Week has been evolving and growing popular. The festival has been quick to employ the latest advances. Since the very start, the festival has made use of the Internet as a communication medium; now Facebook is the newest channel being exploited. Still, nothing can replace face-to-face communication between scientists and the public.

All ages welcome

“We view the entire populace as National Science Week’s target group,” says Mona Gravningen Rygh, Director of the Research Council’s Department for Communication. “It is first and foremost a public-oriented initiative, and one of its goals is to boost children and young people’s interest in research and development. But the purpose of the festival is not merely to illustrate how researchers spend our tax money and demystify research and the scientists who perform it.”

Photo: Sidsel Flock Bachmann

Photo: Sidsel Flock Bachmann

“The festival also shows politicians that investing in research pays dividends, demonstrates to the media that there are plenty of exciting research stories right here in Norway, and provides other researchers with examples of how to share the significance of their work in ways that inspire others.”

Concerned with measuring results

Ms Gravningen Rygh is fully aware that it may be difficult to measure the festival’s direct impact on society, especially in the long term, but the Research Council follows all measurable indicators closely.

“The obvious quantifiable success criteria are the number of events and visitors. In both these areas we have seen positive growth throughout the festival’s history,” she says.

“Other criteria include the type and frequency of media coverage resulting from National Science Week,” she adds, pointing to steeply rising curves during the festival’s 15-year existence. “This increased media interest can be interpreted as a reflection of popular interest.”

Sidsel Flock Bachmann and Emmy Gram Lauvanger from the national secretariat. Photo: Jon Solberg

Nationally administered

From the beginning, the Research Council has funded the festival’s centralized project management and joint marketing and profiling activities, while local organizers have been responsible for planning, arranging and funding their own events.

A designated secretariat at the Research Council administers the project at the national level, ensuring that all local organizers receive the same information. The secretariat summarizes organizers’ reports, handles evaluations and statistics, and not least, works to attract media attention to the festival and its various events.

Generating and sharing ideas

Imaginative minds are continually devising new ways to convey information – ways which are then implemented in other, very different contexts. A few years ago, Stavanger’s research community launched “stand-up scientist” performances in which researchers share the latest developments within their sphere of research – in brief and without multimedia aids. This idea has now been adopted by organizers across the country. Science fairs where researchers present their work from stands in streets and public squares are inspired by old-fashioned marketplaces. Introduced in Trondheim in 1995, these science fairs have become a permanent feature of the festival in the major cities.

National Science Week promotes the valuable exchange of dissemination ideas both within and beyond Norway’s borders. Organizers of the festival have exhibited their successful dissemination techniques to their international colleagues at numerous dissemination conferences and in various arenas of cooperation – and have brought home some exciting new ideas from abroad.

For more information visit the Research Council of Norway.

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