In the lead up to our coverage of the World Science Festival, which is taking place in New York this week, our most recent mini-series has been focusing on science festivals. In our latest post we are lucky to be getting a real insight into the workings of a festival through the eyes of our guest blogger, a festival manager at Cambridge Science Festival.
Guest post by Nicola Buckley, Head of Community Affairs, University of Cambridge and Cambridge science festival manager. Nicola has been directing the Cambridge Science Festival team since 2004 and set up the Cambridge Festival of Ideas in 2008. She helps to convene the UK science festivals network.
Science festivals seem to be a growing phenomenon all round the world. A survey in 2008 found that 27 out of 52 science festivals who responded had started in the period 2006-2008, with only 5 starting prior to 1995 (research co-ordinated by Karen Bultitude at UWE).
In the UK, the current annual British Science Festival has its roots in the annual conference organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science since 1831. But the first UK festival founded for the sorts of purposes we now see as common – inspiring young people and engaging with the public of all ages – was the Edinburgh Science Festival in 1989. A Science and Society consultation by the UK government in 2008 described the UK science festival scene as ‘vibrant’ and there are around 15 large science festivals taking place each year, with a growing number of smaller events too.
All festivals consist of days or periods of celebration or an organised series of cultural events. Like other types of festival, the programme content of science festivals is usually diverse to attract as broad a range of individuals as possible. Any science festival might typically include hands-on activities for all ages and the more traditional talks, debates, interviews and discussions. There may also be performance elements such as films, theatre, dance, comedy and music, all with a science-inspired focus.
As with other cultural festivals, there are elements which promote enjoyment and appreciation, but also debate and discussion. Science festivals do play a role in questioning and probing applications of science and its governance. It is possible to evaluate whether attendees felt they were able to enter into dialogue with scientists and other speakers such as politicians.
A special feature of science festivals, when compared with other kinds of science communication activities, is the way in which they bring hundreds of thousands of people in the UK into direct face-to-face contact
with scientists every year in a rich and diverse mix of activities.
The job of a science festival manager is very varied and interesting. Our tasks include fundraising and financial management, programming festivals, marketing, programme and web design, health and safety planning, as well as involving, training and briefing scientists in science communication and evaluating the festivals. At Cambridge, our annual Cambridge Science Festival is organised by the University of Cambridge with numerous partners and our basis in the University means we have up to 1,000 science students and staff volunteering each year during our 2-week festival, much of which is hosted in University laboratories, lecture theatres and cultural venues. Other science festivals are organised externally to universities but with significant participation by scientific and higher education institutions as well as businesses, arts, charity, community and media partners.
Getting involved in a science festival can often provide a first taste of public engagement activity for science students or researchers. The Cambridge Science Festival works through a network of event co-ordinators in departments and partner organisations, who help us recruit the volunteer demonstrators and speakers. We welcome meeting new people who want to get involved, and each year try to come up with new and engaging events which will interest diverse publics. The Cambridge Science Festival offers most of its 150 events for free, and the small central team has a limited amount of planning time, so we seek to collaborate with enthusiastic (and realistic!) scientific partners to get involved and take advantage of the combined publicity effort which a Festival offers to reach public audiences.
Photos copyright of the University of Cambridge. The flame picture is one of their science communication stars, Dr Peter Wothers, the other one is a volunteer science communicator in the Department of Chemistry with a young visitor.
If you want to read more highlights from the World Science Festival, you can find a summary of all our coverage here.