Getting our hands dirty for science

As its fourth edition prepares for launch, TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Science in the City Project Manager Edward Duca about the art-and-science festival’s past, present and future, and his quest to turn Malta into a ‘scientifically literate’ nation

Edward Duca: “My dream is to turn Malta into a fully scientifically-literate nation” • Photo by Ray Attard
Edward Duca: “My dream is to turn Malta into a fully scientifically-literate nation” • Photo by Ray Attard
Shot from Amaze2 exhibition at last year's edition of Science in the City
Shot from Amaze2 exhibition at last year's edition of Science in the City
Science in the City will be commemorating the Rosetta landing with an interactive installation at St George’s Square
Science in the City will be commemorating the Rosetta landing with an interactive installation at St George’s Square

Later this month, part of the surface of St George’s Square – a recently liberated public space whose environs would be described as ‘polite’ at the best of times – will be transformed into a comet surface, commemorating the Rosetta’s mission to Comet 67P earlier this year with an interactive replica.

Set to music and contextualised by surrounding talks, the exhibit will boast a life-sized satellite, drone, 20-metre rocket blast-off, 3D printed rovers and – perhaps most fun of all – a comet surface that visitors can freely stomp around on.

The occasion? This year’s edition of Science in the City (SITC) which, celebrating its fourth installment on September 25, has now managed to entrench itself as one of the key festivals in the summer cultural calendar – a calendar already fit to burst with festivals – particularly in Valletta, where SITC has also set up shop since its inception in 2012.

The comet surface appears to be fully part and parcel with the overarching mission of the science-and-culture festival, as its Project Manager Edward Duca is keen to point out how the event has always aimed to strive for interactivity and engagement over passive consumption.

“This was something that’s in line with the early stages of Science in the City,” he tells me as we sit on plush, bright red sofas at the ‘chapel’ space of the Old University of Malta building in Valletta (the furniture makes for a quirky but jarring sight, placed as it is against the recently restored – and baroque-style – painted walls).

“Over the years we’ve been running one thing was made amply clear to us: people want hands-on activities…”

The germ that grew into the Science in the City project that we know of today was borne out of a series of happy coincidences and connections, all of which came after Duca returned to Malta from Edinburgh as he was winding down his PhD.

While working as a Chemistry supply teacher at Giovanni Curmi Higher Secondary – “I needed money while I finalized my thesis” – Duca got in touch with Prof Alex Felice (now Science in the City’s Project Coordinator) to help set up Malta Café Scientifique: a regular series of lectures dealing with various scientific subjects, in a relaxed environment and very much open to “lay” people.

“Even though it was quite a small thing, Malta Café Scientifique proved that I could organise something along those lines. And we’ve adapted its philosophy for Science in the City since. The idea was always to go against the ‘fountain of knowledge’ model, where you have the speaker giving knowledge to the public. Instead, we wanted it to be a two-way process, where we leave more time for questions than we do for the actual speaker…”

So Duca and his team – which he assembled after “long months” of preparation – set about creating a similarly immersive experience with Science in the City, in a drive to “never be boring”. But Duca’s time in Scotland also played a part – particularly his frequent visits to the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“I would see so many exhibitions and installations incorporating science or scientific concepts there. And this was something happening all across Europe anyway, so I began to wonder: why not Malta? This would put us in line with other countries, and give us a chance to be prominent in something that is very current.”

The programme for this year’s SITC festival certainly promises to be a varied showcase of exhibitions and performances. Apart from the comet surface, the event will also enable people to have free dental check-ups, give space for indie video game developers to show off their work (and invite passers-by to play), host a Science Fair and series of short film screenings, and much more…

Now that the event appears to be progressing to a steady trot – Duca’s projected number of visitors for the first edition proved to be far too cautious… by around 11,000 – it feels natural to ask what Duca believes the next step for the project should be.

“My dream is to turn Malta into a fully scientifically-literate nation. I want everyone to know what DNA is, why you should BioBank your tissue, and so on,” Duca says, perhaps partly speaking in his capacity as editor of Think Magazine – the monthly University of Malta research publication. This is of course where Science in the City’s ability to render scientific research more accessible and entertaining comes in, but Duca confesses that more financial aid and manpower is needed for the event to reach its full potential.

“The government is slightly more receptive to us now than it was before, but the bulk of our funds – I would even say around 90% – come from the EU, since the festival forms part of the EU-wide ‘Researchers’ Night’. In a way, reduced government involvement isn’t a bad thing, since it allows us to operate more or less independently…”

Still, Duca bemoans the fact that the festival’s resources are “so overstretched” that extending it to a two-day event is all but impossible, not to mention that it limits their ability to invite international guests. “Look at the way the Malta Arts Festival operates: you have a mix of local and international participants, which helps give people an international context, and also creates possibilities for networking.”

More than that, however, he points to the wider problem of science communication not being given its due.

“For example, we successfully won Malta Arts Fund awards in previous years, so I know how this fund could directly benefit such a project. But there’s no equivalent Fund for science communication – which is so important if we want to educate people further.”

Lamenting that “more is spent on the Eurovision than directly to University research” annually, Duca believes the government should change this if it wants to be ahead of the curve… in any field.

“More research will lead to Malta having a better-skilled workforce, and more investment – it’s that simple. And it is only through innovation that we will start leading, and not simply following trends.”

The fourth edition of Science in the City will take place across Valletta on 25 September from 6pm till midnight