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Bringing research closer to society: IMBA at the "Be Open" Science Festival

Stem Cell pavilion curated by IMBA director Jürgen Knoblich counted thousands of visitors at the 50th Birthday Science Festival from The Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

From September 8 to 12 young scientists and committed researchers from IMBA and the Vienna BioCenter took part in a very special celebration reaching out to over 30.000 visitors: For its 50th anniversary, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) - Austria's central funding organization for basic research – initiated a huge science festival called “Be Open”.

This event allowed scientists to directly engage in an open dialogue between the general public, the scientific community, politicians and key decision makers at national and European levels on the key role of basic research for societal development. 

The festival took place in a picturesque setting at Maria-Theresien-Platz – a touristic hotspot in the heart of Vienna. The “Be Open” Festival was also Austria’s biggest open-air science event during the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Federal President of the Republic of Austria held the patronage of the event and inaugurated the festival with a speech, underlining the need for more funds for basic research. Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation visited the closing ceremony. 

Jürgen Knoblich, interim scientific director of IMBA, was approached by the FWF to curate a “Stem Cell pavilion”, a pop-up exhibition that was on display along with other 17 thematic pavilions showcasing the diverse fields of cutting-edge basic research in Austria. More than 20 young scientists from IMBA and the Vienna BioCenter took the role of science communicators during the festival and engaged with a truly diverse and international audience, from small child, to other fellow scientists and opinion leaders.  

Public engagement activities are an integral part of IMBA’s research activities. They are requested by funding agencies who feel the public needs to be informed about the use of public funds. Plus: „It can be extremely inspiring and fruitful, it was impressive to see the visitors’ interest in our work!” says Daniel Reumann, VBC Phd student in the lab of Jürgen Knoblich and one of IMBAs “organoid ambassadors”. With the foundation of the Austrian Society for Stem Cell Research earlier this year at IMBA, the stem cell pavilion was a great opportunity for raising awareness and promoting appreciation and understanding of stem cell research in Austria. And, equally important, to discuss the ethical challenges arising with biotechnological advancements. 

One important aspect at the stem cell pavilion was the open discussion of ethical questions associated with stem cell research, an aspect that received a lot of attention. “For all of us it was a unique and enriching experience to present stem cell research to such a broad mass of visitors. We really appreciated the fact that we could answer so many interesting questions from the public and that we could explain why we do what we do. Clinical implication of stem cell research is not easy to overlook; however, our intention was to convey a solid status quo to the visitors so that they are able to distinguish between fake stories advertised on the internet and scientific success stories that pave the way for new cures’’, says Arabella Meixner, scientist and head of the Ethics Department at IMBA. Together with her team she led the „stem cell dialogue arena” in the pavilion during the whole festival.