science starts the party

The 30th edition of the science festival takes place in mainland France from 11 October and overseas and internationally from 5 to 22 November. In June 1991, in Paris, an event created in 1992 following the success of a more local gathering held in the gardens of the Ministry of Research. Science Festival today brings together 1.2 million participants and 10 million people. Internet users (official statistics for 2019, the last version before covid).

go back to the origin of the event Marie-Nol Favier, former documentary filmmaker with Commandant Cousteau and Head of the Department of Scientific and Technological Culture (CST) at the Ministry of Research (1984–1998). He participated in the launch in 1991, which has since become a festival of science.

How did fte de la science come to be?

The science festival was not created ex-nihilo. The idea was to highlight all the activities and works done in the national arena at a time of year. There was a political will on the part of an enlightened minister, Hubert Curian, who wanted to bring science closer to the citizens, and the youth in particular.

We were inspired by Quebec, where the “Quinzaine des Sciences” was organized by the Société de Promotion des Sciences. The Fête de la Science was born in 1992, but last year, we celebrated ten years since the creation of the Ministry of Research in the Gardens, rue Descartes. And on this occasion, we established a science village for the general public with scientific manipulations, rocket launches and chemistry experiments. A whole range of major conventions with tenures such as Hubert Reeves, Pierre-Gilles de Gaines, etc. And the event was very successful! Minister Hubert Curian, who was in office at the time, found that we should disseminate it more widely.

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The success of the Fte de la Musique, another popular gathering formed shortly before [en 1982]Inspired us too. It was part of the context in which we wanted to implement the regional policy of scientific and technological culture. Cité des Sciences has opened [en 1986]Scientific and technical culture centers have been built in the regions: the idea was to invent a symbolic phenomenon so that this whole policy of networking the area could go on.

The gardens of the Ministry of Research were opened to the public in 1991, a year before the creation of the Science Festival across France.

Credit: research ministry

What did the visitors get at the event held in 1991?

This was the first event and there was great enthusiasm in these gardens of the ministry: the tents welcomed the public which revolved around the collaborators and scientific partners who came to perform. Small chemistry experiments were carried out by manipulators at the Palais de la Décoverte, the Planet Sciences Association launched rockets. We mobilized both scientists and moderators who helped make this operation fun and engaging for the general public.

Do you remember an anecdote about launching a mini-rocket in the garden of the ministry?

The then Minister of Research Hubert Curian was the father of the Ariane rocket. He presided over CNES (National Center for Space Studies) and authorized the National Association for Young Technological Sciences, which has since become Planet Science, to launch small rockets. But one of them did not follow the planned path completely and it fell on the roof of the ministry. The security agents reacted and wanted to stop all these untimely activities but the minister reached the balcony: “If I had to stop the Ariane rocket launch with every loss, we would never have succeeded, so let these youngsters experiment!”, he said. “let’s experiment” : This is one of the great words of fte de la science, especially for children.

Which audience were you targeting?

The purpose of the Fte de la Science was to reach the general public. The idea was to look beyond those who had already frequented the Museums, the Cité des Sciences or the Palais de la Décoverte. Several movements took place at the same time: the opening of laboratories to bring people into little-known places, including areas. I often cite the example of CEA-Sesta (Center for Scientific and Technological Studies in Aquitaine) near Bordeaux, which first opened its doors. It is a site where much sensitive research on megajoule lasers is carried out, which allows experiments on physical models to simulate nuclear charges. This is a “secret” place, opened for the first time.

Along with this, there was also an idea to sensitize the youth. This was something that Minister Hubert Curien was very keen on: creating encounters between scientists, carriers of knowledge, and young audiences. There has been a lot of them: through the creation of small specific experiences in high schools, schools or for this young audience.

In the beginning, we started “small” by organizing events over three days. The first event was in June but due to this period being a bit busy for academics and school children, the meeting moved from 1995 to October. And then the program was expanded, becoming Science Week in 1998, to reach the public more widely, so that they have time to organize the event during school hours. In 2000, the name “Fte de la Science” returned and the duration was further extended to ten days.

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves and astronaut Claudy André-Deches (who has since become Claudy Hagnre) during "Science celebrates in 1994".
Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves and astronaut Claudy André-Deches (who has since become Claudée Hagnre) during “La science en fte en 1994”.

Credit: research ministry

What do you think is the reason for this success?

We felt that there is a thirst for science, there is a demand. This corresponded to a period of inquiry into scientific progress, which the philosopher Dominique Lecourt called “Hot Science Questions”. It was then the question of applications of science in nuclear power, GMOs … controversial questions to which the public felt the need for answers and dialogue; Climate change and vaccines were already raising questions at the time. The playful look we were presenting with Science Village really met the audience. About 540,000 people attended from June 11–14, 1992, and today the figure has stabilized at around 2 million.

What is the principle of Science Village?

It was a concept that was extremely festive and unifying. The slogan was to present them everywhere in France, in public places: at places like the Capitol in Toulouse or Bargemon in Marseille, in scientific complexes such as the BRGM (Bureau de Recherche Geologic and Mining) in Orléans, or in Genopole. Avery, even in universities. That there be symbolic places where these tent science villages could be born, like Christmas markets, where scientists and moderators can present their festive and playful experiences. I remember an event held at the Place de la Comédie in Montpellier, where a giant rice paddy was set up to raise awareness of this delicate ecosystem … there were many highlights, and those that live on in our memories.

Its purpose was also to create employment among the youth.

Yes, and I have met many people who have told me that their profession was to some extent born during these moments of meeting and exchange. Many people tell us, especially among girls, that they were exposed to this playful way of presenting science. This was one of the goals of the fte de la science and Hubert Curian was extremely sensitive to it. He really wanted to instil business among the youth. However, we can sometimes be surprised when we see how receptive people are to false information today. But not because we have to give up. On the contrary, I would say that we people should continue to discover the places where science has developed.

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