Casual encounters and open conversations about science at the city libraries
''Even over Morgen''
In the fall of 2022 about 300 visitors of several libraries in Utrecht talked spoke with researchers from the Utrecht University. Together they exchanged ideas and experiences about societal issues regarding upbringing, sustainability, health and freedom. "I mainly spoke about my own experiences and the researcher talked about the scientific side. We were able to bring those together very well."
For the 'Even over morgen' program (which roughly translates to 'Can we discuss tomorrow'), researchers from the Utrecht University went to various libraries in the city to engage in conversation with visitors. During the first edition in 2021, visitors formulated more than 500 questions for science. This year, four of those questions were the starting point of the conversations (see below). With this set-up, the University aims to encourage encounter and dialogue between researchers and a broad audience from all over the city.
"What makes a place pleasurable to grow up?" (Karima, 33, Zuilen)
"What is freedom?" (Arthur, 66, Kanaleneiland)
"How can we recycle more?" (Xinyan and Peiyan, age 11, Leidsche Rijn)
"Is it good to test often to see if you are still healthy?" (Bruna, age 33, Kanaleneiland)
Are you a researcher and interested in the answers? Send us a message by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Visitors choose a question that appeals to them. Then we pair them with a researcher who’s seated somewhere in the library. Together they engage in a conversation about experiences, opinions and ideas around the question and the overarching theme associated with it," says project leader Lieke Dekker of the Public Engagement program office. "They explore different perspectives, with the researcher sharing his/her scientific perspective. By collaborating with the Utrecht Library, researchers come into contact with people who are normally not much engaged with science, and vice versa. Both visitors and researchers find exchanging those perspectives very valuable. It's a conversation that wouldn't take place otherwise. It's all very accessible"
I didn't know I had so many opinions about freedom.
Thinking critically about your own thoughts
Visitors ranged in ages from 5 to 85 and came from a variety of backgrounds. Some people came to the library for their (digital) language lessons, others for a cup of coffee and a chat, to borrow books or read the newspaper. None of them had expected to talk to a researcher that day. Many visitors said that they especially appreciated how well the researcher listened to them and took a genuine interest in their story. "I really felt heard. I thought it was a very interesting conversation, and it makes me think critically about my own thoughts." And another Overvecht library visitor adds: "I didn't know I had so many opinons about freedom."
The conversations were also an enriching experience for the researchers. Jonas Mars, PhD student at the Hubrecht Institute: "When I am in conversation with library visitors, I notice that they sometimes have a completely different view of things than I do. That helps me adjust my view of people and the world, and therefore also helps me in my own research." Yara Al Salman, associate professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy: "I find it very important to make a social contribution with my research. For me, this is a way to hear what questions people care about." The 22 participating researchers received a training beforehand, in which they practiced open dialogue, deferring judgment and active listening. The training was provided by the Program Office for Public Engagement in collaboration with Cathelijne Reincke, PhD candidate at UMC Utrecht. Several scientists indicated that the dialogue training helped them during the interviews. For example, they kept on asking questions and an open mind with visitors with remarkable stories and firm opinions.
Because of the training, I had some pointers that kept a difficult conversation from derailing and even led to mutual interest in our circumstances.
More on Public Engagement
Even About Tomorrow is an initiative from the University's Public Engagement Program Office. The Program Office organizes activities where scientists and the public meet, with the aim of familiarizing a broad audience with science. Because if you have a better understanding of how knowledge is gathered and how it is relevant to you, you can make more informed choices in everyday life. For more information about Public Engagement, visit www.uu.nl/publiekenwetenschap.