What do brain bicycle helmets in Croatia, pupil conferences at the European Parliament, a play about smell in France, bird behaviour dances in the UK, magic brains in Portugal, brain twister in Germany, and the psychology of tiramisu in Italy all have in common? Well, they are all Brain Awareness Week events that have been supported over the years by European Dana Alliance of the Brain, and FENS. This week (14-20 March) is the 2016 Brain Awareness Week and many FENS members will be busy running activities for the public, so we thought we’d take a look at what makes Brain Awareness Week special.
It is over 20 years since the Dana Alliance for the Brain Initiative (DABI) launched the first Brain Awareness Week Campaign in the United States in May 1996. It had a distinct and unusual emphasis, bringing together diverse groups from academia, government and advocacy groups in a series of public events held in Washington DC, to explain that brain research is the means by which possible treatment, preventions and cures may be found for diseases of the brain, (http://www.dana.org/uploadedFiles/Pdfs/dabi_timeline(1).pdf).
This idea of communicating neuroscience to others clearly resonated with both researchers and the public and World Brain Awareness Week was established, just over a year later, in late 1997. This initiative has continued to flourish, with a continuous year-on-year increase in both the number of countries participating and the number of events delivered (Figure 1). In 2015, there were 782 Brain Awareness Week events in 51 countries worldwide registered on the Brain Awareness Week International Calendar (http://www.dana.org/baw). These numbers are certainly an underestimate as many exciting events take place that are not registered on the calendar.
Europe has been involved in Brain Awareness Week almost from the very beginning; the ‘European Dana Alliance for the Brain’ (EDAB) was established in 1997 and, as a result, Brain Awareness Week rapidly became a European experience too. EDAB and FENS have played an essential role in promoting and supporting Brain Awareness Week activities, and providing funding; since 2008, it has supported 295 events in 31 European countries. Reading the project reports each year is a wonderfully inspiring glimpse into the enthusiasm, hard work and talent of our European neuroscience community (http://www.fens.org/Outreach/Brain-Awareness-Week-Reports/)
So, why is Brain Awareness Week so successful? It isn’t easy to mobilise whole continents simultaneously, so there must be something special going on. We do benefit from our subject matter - you are your brain and it’s very easy to engage people about themselves! So, we know that if we make an effort, people will be interested enough to stop, listen and get involved. The way Brain Awareness Week is managed is also a big factor – it is not prescriptive and researchers are able to organise themselves in a way that works for them. It simply dedicates a week each year to neuroscience outreach in which we are all invited to participate; we know we will be working alongside colleagues from across the world and we can engage people through whatever method inspires us. Whether it is working with the European Parliament or a magician, presenting a lecture or a film screening, engaging pupils or policymakers, there is a engagement approach to suit everyone. And if you haven’t seen something that suits you yet – go ahead and create something new! Brain Awareness Week provides all of us with a platform, and an excuse, to communicate - whether we are new to engagement or experienced, whether we are planning a small event or something ambitious.
Being free to create your own activities doesn’t, however, mean you are on your own. DANA has collated researchers experiences over the years and created an extensive array of online ideas, resources and – most importantly – advice, which they have made freely available to everyone, regardless of country. So, armed with a ‘how-to’ kit and access to online resources for printing off and using, every researcher can plan an event with confidence. For European researchers the only down side is that the resources are currently all in English – perhaps we need some volunteers to create translated versions for FENS!
Being free to arrange your own activities also leads to interesting differences of approach in Europe. Many countries do not coordinate Brain Awareness Week events nationally and researchers simply arrange their own local activities. In France, however, the ‘Societé des Neurosciences’ coordinates a national programme involving a large number of exciting-looking events that, in 2016, will involve researchers in 30 different cities (www.semaineducerveau.fr/2016). Last year their activities reached over 35,000 people, which is really impressive in a single week.
So, we wish all researchers across Europe a thoroughly enjoyable Brain Awareness Week. May your brain ideas inspire and illuminate, whether you are explaining brain plasticity in Oslo, exploring the neurobiology of empathy in Zagreb, journeying into the brain in Izmir, having a brain-match in Bucharest, inspiring little brain researchers in Athens, or fretting about free will in Torino………….*
*these are all EDAB/FENS funded activities for Brain Awareness Week 2016.