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Sci Foo 2019 – A weekend of ideas and collaboration

7th August 2019
 | Alex Jackson

In an unassuming former shopping-mall-turned-industrial-warehouse on the periphery of Mountain View, a small Californian town named for its views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, all manner of activity is currently unfolding.

Lying on the table in front of us lies an actual woolly mammoth tooth, while across the room is a human heart stripped from cells. Meanwhile a huddle of people thoroughly inspects a rat brain model. It’s a scene typical of the many wondrous curiosities on offer at the annual Sci Foo ‘unconference’, an idiosyncratic event that is both lightly structured and informal.

Part of a wider range of events collectively known as Foo Camps, this three-day science themed gathering hosts researchers, writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors, and other thought-leaders from across the globe. This year is no different, and marks the biggest since its inception in 2006, with more than 350 invited attendees.

 Co-organised by Google, O’Reilly Media, and Digital Science, with support from Nature, for a successive year at the secretive ‘X’ (formerly Google X) home to Google’s self-driving car and other major technological innovations – the event has no predefined agenda. Instead, the ‘unconference’ style means that the attendees create their own weekend schedule of suggested talks on the first night of the meeting.

Watching the encouraging mayhem ensue as hundreds of leading thinkers in their fields crowd around a board clutching their Post-It scribbled session proposals is both infectious and endearing. It epitomises the willingness and hunger to share and learn from each other, as well as collaborate on ideas at Sci Foo.

 As a result, the breadth and diversity of sessions is staggering and fascinating. The session clashes are endless and that’s before you take into account the two one hour-long sessions of lightning talks kicking off both Saturday and Sunday’s events.

Trying to summarise what goes on in the lively sessions and picking highlights is near impossible. A taster of session subjects among many others includes: ‘the neural basis of consciousness’, ‘fully automated luxury feminism’, ‘climate change – where are we going?’ ‘changing perspectives on Africa with science’, ‘what is the scientific journal of tomorrow?’ ‘social media for social good’, ‘making new materials’, ‘decolonising science – how do we know what we know?’

Attendees are encouraged to take part in sessions completely outside their fields of expertise and are given the freedom to roam between them. This often leads to engaged debates and conversations within a multidisciplinary group of individuals, who may not usually have the opportunity to meet people from outside their own narrow field of research. The Sci Foo ethos is very much aligned with the ‘Pac-Man mentality’ (leave an open ‘wedge’ in a group conversation so others can join in easily), which is noticeable throughout both sessions and while dining in Google’s famed micro-kitchens and canteen.

Dr Amelia A Lake, a reader in public health nutrition at Teeside University, sums up the spirit of SciFoo in a great roundup – ‘Be inclusive, be kind, be curious and talk to people from as many diverse fields as possible.’ While Dr Michelle Rodrigues, a biological anthropologist, brilliantly talks about failure in science and experiencing something different at the event – ‘(Sci Foo) had the peculiar effect of almost eliminating the normal forms of gatekeeping and hierarchy academia has taught me to expect as normal.’ Neuroscientist and photographer Bryan Jones captured some as ever incredible photos and as a research physicist-turned-writer Laurie Winkless concisely put it two years ago in an entertaining roundup – ‘everyone experiences a different Sci Foo, and that is really, really special.’

Sci Foo helps foster collaboration between scientists and thinkers from different disciplines, encourages curiosity and learning, and looks to help establish new and lasting friendships. There was enough evidence on show to suggest it achieved all of these – and long may it continue.