The American particle physics community is in jeopardy and may end up drowning in a boundless sea trying to grasp at non-existing funds, dragging US physics and science as a whole to the bottom. This is a price the most powerful and high-tech country of the world cannot afford, as warned by the editors of a report published in late April by the National Academy of Sciences1. Behind so much alarm is the International Linear Collider (ILC) – a large particle accelerator facility which, according to the report, should be built on American territory, if research on the elementary constituents of nature is to survive in the United States. The ILC will probably cost a total of five hundred million dollars in the first five years, whereas billions will have to be invested in the subsequent seven years. Hardly impressive, however, if compared with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), the biggest and costliest machine ever conceived in the history of science. Devised to describe the first instants of the universe, as many will recall, the SSC project was severely hampered by political and bureaucratic plots in 1993, when the Clinton administration decided to halt work on the accelerator, after ten years and approximately two billion dollars already spent.
The discussion on the state of the art of scientific publications in Latin American countries generally restricts itself to its supposedly low visibility. This affirmation is generally conditioned to the exclusive use of large international databases, mainly of the USA and Europe, which include thousands of scientific publications that have marginalized a large part of the scientific literature produced in peripheral countries. Given this fact of low visibility, it became imperative for some Latin American countries, beginning in the 90s (20th Century), to develop their own mechanisms of projection of the results of their own scientific production. The experiences constitute an example for countries that, having significant scientific production, still do not have the means to facilitate access to local scientific publications. Although Bolivia still remains distant from these initiatives, a series of studies were identified that show the existence of a tradition of publication in scientific magazines and interest in their visibility, on a local and international level, which demands attention to the most adequate mechanisms in order to carry this out.
Following the example of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, interactive science museums are meant to be informal and enjoyable places where visitors, regardless of their age and background, are stimulated to practice their abilities to explore the world from a scientific point of view or to reacquire it in the case of adults who are far from science for professional reasons. Our study, which belongs to a relatively recent, but increasingly richer and complex tradition of researches on this topic, aims at contributing to answering the question whether, within the context of hands-on museums, this desired reacquisition of scientific exploration actually occurs for all visitors; more precisely, it aims at contributing to the discussion resulting from this question with reference to both possible answers and methods to find them. The study described below was carried out for a Science Communication Master thesis in Trieste (student: Monia Cardella, supervisor: Paola Rodari) and, therefore, it is inevitably limited: in fact, in order to deal with such a complex issue and to perform more detailed investigations on the field longer time and more resources would have been necessary. However, both methods used and results obtained from it, although provisional, are significant enough to deserve our attention.
In May 2004 the Balì Museum, Planetarium and interactive science museum, was opened to the public in Italy: 35 hands-on exhibits designed according to the interactive tradition of the Exploratorium in San Francisco, an astronomic observatory for educational activities, a Planetarium with 70 places. With a total investment of about three million euros, about two thirds of which were spent on restructuring the splendid eighteenth-century villa in which it is housed, the undertaking may be considered a small one in comparison with other European science centres. Three million euros: perhaps enough to cover the cost of only the splendid circular access ramp to the brand-new Cosmocaixa in Barcelona, an investment of one hundred million euros. But the interesting aspect of the story of the Balì Museum (but also of other Italian stories, as we shall see) lies in the fact that this lively and advanced science centre stands in the bucolic region of the Marches, next to a small town of only 800 inhabitants (Saltara, in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino), in a municipal territory that has a total of 5000. Whereas in Italy the projects for science centres comparable with the Catalan one, for example projects for Rome and Turin, never get off the ground, smaller ones are opening in small and medium-sized towns: why is this? And what does the unusual location of the centres entail for science communication in Italy? This Focus does not claim to tell the whole truth about Italian interactive museums, but it does offer some phenomenological cues to open a debate on the cultural, economic and political premises that favour their lives.
The debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution is a unique case for observing some particular ways in which science is perceived and experienced in society. It is a dispute which is really not very scientific at all, since it ultimately derives from the attempt to discredit a corroborated scientific explanation (and to limit its teaching) by fundamentalist fringe groups of religious and political movements of various extraction. However, it is undeniable that the clash between creationists and evolutionists must also involve, in a critical and self-reflective way, the communicative weaknesses of science and its inability to assert itself as a widespread and fully shared culture, as was also stressed by the Nature magazine in April 2005. With an international viewpoint, ranging from the United States to Europe, from Australia to Italy, in this dossier we try to make a summary investigation of the current state of the debate, with a particularly attentive eye on the communicative strategies that contend in the two fields.