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Riding the tsunami

Luke Georghiou reflects on six days of science, policy, culture and cocktails.

Friday 22 July For the past week, there seems to have been a query every 10 minutes about one or another VIP’s arrangements. The first event is a media reception in Cloud 23 cocktail bar, atop the tallest residential building in Europe, and it includes science-themed cocktails. Then off to the Museum of Science and Industry for the launch of ‘Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond’. It’s interesting to see events and people you know translated into exhibits that will sit alongside artefacts from the industrial revolution in the next hall.

Saturday 23 July The biggest part of ESOF’s accompanying Science in the City festival is Bluedot at Jodrell Bank. 15,000 people enjoy a combination of music and science under the Lovell Telescope. The ESOF tent features Cern, the Square Kilometre Array and Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, who talks about “science that makes people laugh then think”. There’s a lot of the first and some of second. One more reception, and then I’m relaxing to Jean-Michel Jarre, although I do wonder whether his lasers are pointing at Manchester Airport’s flight path.

Sunday 24 July To our main venue, Manchester Central Convention Complex, to launch a satellite event on responsible research and innovation. Turnout is good for a Sunday morning. Then to Manchester City Council Chamber for a private session on ethics and principles in science policymaking. From there to the stunning Shared Sky exhibition of indigenous art, inspired by cosmology from South Africa and Australia, the sites of the SKA telescopes.

Mid-afternoon, delegates pile in for the opening ceremony. Physicist Brian Cox comperes flawlessly and the two riskiest things you can do on stage—live links (to the SKA sites) and appearing with children—end up as high points. A quick spin through the exhibition’s 68 stands, and on to the President’s Dinner in the Town Hall. Mark Ferguson, Ireland’s chief scientist, gives an after-dinner speech with jokes worthy of a Carry On film.

Monday 25 July Normal sessions start, and then pause for a plenary by research commissioner Carlos Moedas on global and open science. Key point: “The relationship with the general public will define science in the 21st century”. Then over to the Town Hall, where former science minister David Willetts is giving the Fred Jevons Science Policy Lecture. Jevons was my first professor, and it’s a privilege sharing reminiscences. Dash back to hear colleagues present findings from our Horizon 2020 project.

Next it’s time to show Moedas and Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan the National Graphene Institute. A graphene car and a graphene-winged drone are on display. Back to Cloud 23 for the sponsors’ reception—more science cocktails! Dinner at a new restaurant, Grafene, courtesy of Japanese and South African colleagues. Then the ESOF party: strobes, more lasers and Oldham-based rock band The Whip. Delegates young and old recreate their best student nights. Walk back minus hearing.

Tuesday 26 July Business day kicks off with an inspirational talk on scale-up firms from entrepreneur Sherry Coutu, followed by a fascinating session comparing the outlooks of angel, venture capital and corporate investors. Herman Hauser, a founder of the Cambridge-based semiconductor giant ARM, shares his disquiet at the company’s impending Japanese takeover. Change sides to speak in a session on interdisciplinary science and excellence. Finish day by chairing a panel on the value of research, followed by dinner with the panelists.

Wednesday 27 July Brexit has been in the air—now it’s tackled head on in a packed session. The most common quote of the week has been Michael Gove’s remark that Britain has “had enough of experts”. There are parallels with climate change—we need to mitigate and adapt. In the afternoon, Manchester professor of public history Michael Wood juxtaposes China’s past with Manchester’s industrial revolution. A strong strand on science diplomacy concludes with Princess Sumaya leading discussion on SESAME, a light source—in every sense—in the Middle East. Compere the closing ceremony and handover to 2018 host Toulouse. Thanks and flowers for some brilliant colleagues, but many more are owed.

Segue to French cheese and wine with the Remain battle-cry ‘Fromage not Farage!’ Dinner with colleagues from Toulouse and EuroScience. On to the bar with the ESOF team and Carl Austin-Behan, Manchester’s marvellous Lord Mayor, who came to the opening and kept coming back. It’s over—after 3,000 delegates, 700 sessions and 150 speakers. Sleep (possibly for the whole summer).

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Luke Georghiou was co-champion of ESOF 2016, and is professor of science and technology policy and vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester. 

This article also appeared in the ESOF 2016 Special