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Mariya Gabriel

European Commission

''This year Leiden will be a bridge, sharing science, knowledge, art and skills building new connections between science and society in innovative and open ways.''

Header picture: Jon Chase rapping about the connection between science and society during the closing event of Leiden2022. Photocredits: Taco van der Eb

LEIDEN – When Leiden was awarded the title of European City of Science for the year 2022, one thing was certain: following the European tradition of Youth Capitals and Cultural Capitals, Leiden wanted to be the first European city to present a year-round science program for anyone with a curious mind. The aim was to connect science with society. That's easier said than done — yet still, it worked: throughout the city, from its smallest corners to the surroundings, special encounters took place between citizens and scientists.

Go local!

It’s quite a unique move to opt for a local or even hyper-local approach when planning for a European year. Yet this is exactly the choice that the Leiden2022 team made. On the one hand, this choice was prompted by the desire to bring about real, authentic, and meaningful encounters between citizens and scientists. On the other hand, this small-scale approach also offered the opportunity to prepare and develop activities that could go ahead during a time when Europe and the world were still paralysed by a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude. Remember, in the Netherlands, the last lockdown was only lifted at the beginning of last year, on February 25, 2022.

From top down to bottom up

By opting for an open, flexible, and scalable program structure, the organisation began by considering how previous European cities had approached their year of science. “With our predecessors, such as Stockholm, Toulouse, and Trieste, it was mainly about the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF). This international, highly regarded conference was always central, and a peripheral program was then set up around it,”

says intendant Lucien Geelhoed, who was responsible for the substantive concept of Leiden2022. “But I proposed to radically turn that around. We wanted to create interactions between science and society. Not only by focusing on high-profile academic events but also by putting together a communal programme. This is the only way to create real interaction between science and society.”

Playfulness and creativity

To reach as many people as possible, the organisation decided to focus on the entire spectrum of human knowledge, covering not just science but also expertise, know-how, arts, culture, and craft. “If you want science to come to life for everyone, then you have to dare to experiment, you have to open up, allow creativity in, and listen carefully to what is going on in the community,” says Director of Leiden2022, Meta Knol, who herself comes from the cultural sector.

And so it happened. During the first half of 2021, Geelhoed and Knol hung 365 blank sheets of paper in their workspace and called on everyone – scientists and citizens alike – to nominate topics for each day of the year. An endless amount of online sessions followed, and within a short time, hundreds of exciting themes were nominated. The 365 daily topics selected by Geelhoed were then summarised in a tear-off calendar, and in the autumn of 2021, 60,000 copies were printed. The popular calendar was distributed free of charge throughout markets, schools, libraries and even vaccination sites. The process was simple: everyone could adopt a day’s topic and become an ‘owner of the day,’ and then, together with scientists, they would organise an activity. This resulted in the groundbreaking co-creation project Kennis door de Wijken (Knowledge through the Neighbourhoods).

The poster presentation of the Danish team during EUCYS. Photo credits: Monique Shaw
Overarching narrative: Who Knows

While the world was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, during the preparations for Leiden European City of Science 2022, trust in science was continuously being questioned. This is why Lucien Geelhoed chose 'Who Knows' as the overarching theme for the annual programme. “The time when science could function under a bell jar is most definitely over,” he said. “Now, scientists must also relate to the public domain. Their authority is no longer self-evident. Modesty also suits us, though, because we still don't know that much. For example, 96% of the universe is still unknown. And who knows what the future will hold? The ‘Who Knows’ theme touches on exactly this zeitgeist.”

The open and interactive structure of the year resulted in unexpected collaborations, says intendant Geelhoed. “Both the LUMC and Hogeschool Leiden, for example, wanted to become the organisers of the subject ‘virus,’” he says. “In the end, this led to a jointly-organised afternoon at Museum Boerhaave, during which experts from both institutes took visitors on a journey through two types of viruses: biological viruses and computer viruses.”

In line with the theme, all kinds of parties were invited to participate. For example, in collaboration with New Scientist, the 22 most topical, urgent, endlessly fascinating, yet universally unsolvable scientific questions of our time were selected, such as 'Can humans, animals and nature exist in balance with each other?' or 'How open is science and how open should it be?' By inviting the public to select one of these 22 questions or daily topics and organise events around it, thousands of small and large initiatives and activities arose that the organisation itself could never have imagined.

As one can imagine, with so many different activities, it was quite difficult to develop a good communication strategy. After all, each activity had its own signature and background. Even the hip house style, through which a separate QR code was created for each activity, could not prevent the annual program from sometimes appearing fragmented.

Jackie Ashkin of Team Coastbusters with their prototype. Photo credits: Monique Shaw
Stronger together

However, the structure of Leiden European City of Science 2022 also proved to be a magnet for organisers of other major scientific events. In addition to ESOF, the 33rd final of the EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) and the very first edition of the EU Talenton organised by Leiden2022 itself, the European City of Science title also more than doubled the number of conferences, symposiums and science galas – from 44 in 2019 to more than 85 in 2022. Among these were the first Gala for Science and Society of the New Scientist, the traditional Evening for Science and Society, and the Evening of Chemistry. Large award ceremonies, such as the prestigious Lorentz Medal, also occurred in Leiden.

Community bonus

But the biggest gain to come out of the year, according to the organisers, lies in all the initiatives that have arisen from society at a local level instead of from large institutions or organisations. “These are really dizzying numbers,” says director of Leiden2022, Meta Knol. “From a local theater company that focused on science for a year, to science medals for all participants in the Leiden Marathon. From the large, annual parade with a ‘fake news’ theme for the people of Leiden, to a locally brewed beer called Sip of Science. It shows beautifully how inspiring it is when science and society come together.”

The European Commission was also impressed by everything that happened in Leiden this past year. “The best compliment they could give us is that they have included our way of working as a pilot in their European Research Area Policy Agenda, which they share with all member states,” says Knol. “We are representing agenda item 14:'Bring science closer to citizens.” This means that the results and evaluations of the Leiden European City of Science 2022 will be shared with science representatives from all EU member states: “We’re proud to see that, in this way, we have introduced Leiden2022’s new Model for Public Engagement with Science on not just a local, but also a European scale.”

The hot pink Wijscokar (Wisecream truck) by Jos van den Broek and Danny Molenaar brought on fun, scientific conversations.
Photocredits: Jannie de Groot.
Creating a new, European legacy

Now that their work is done, Geelhoed and Knol hope that they and their team have placed a new European legacy on the map — and things are looking promising. While Leiden was the very first European city to present a year-round science festival, it’s already clear that Katowice will continue with this brand-new tradition in 2024. And the Leiden model for Public Engagement with Science will likely continue to resonate in all sorts of places after this year: “We’d like to think that this year we have shown the international scientific community that things can be done differently,” says Geelhoed. “The fact that such beautiful and inspiring things can arise from the meeting of science and society — hopefully, this is the message that will continue to resonate after this year.” Meta Knol agrees. “We hope that our model will inspire other cities, universities, and scientists to develop new ways of interacting with their local community” she says. “Because people are more curious than you think. And now is the time to do it.”

“We hope that our model will inspire other cities, universities, and scientists to develop new ways of interacting with their local community”

Meta Knol, Director

Leiden2022 European City of Science

Leiden European City of Science 2022 is a 365-day science festival packed with activities, lectures, workshops, excursions, exhibitions, and events, for anyone with a curious mind, the goal of which is to connect science and society.

For more information contact Leiden&partners at or +31 71 516 600.
Leiden2022 is an initiative of the Municipality of Leiden, Leiden University, Leiden University Medical Center and the Leiden University of Applied Sciences, supported by the European Commission and many local, national and international partners.