Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Science festivals – part 3: Cheltenham Science Festival

To tie-in with of our planned coverage of the World Science Festival, which is taking place in New York City this week, our latest mini-series has been focusing on science festivals. We have already looked at the brief history of a science festival and how they are organised. In our latest installment we have a joint guest post by Sharon Bishop, the Executive Director of The Times Cheltenham Science Festival who has been involved with the last six of the ten Cheltenham Science Festivals, and Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society at Bristol University and Festival Director since the very first in 2002.

Festival People

On 7-12 June 2011, Cheltenham Science Festival celebrates its tenth year. It is run by Cheltenham Festivals, an organisation that, until 2002, was operating only arts festivals – Literature, classical Music and Jazz. The Science Festival grew out of the Literature Festival, where science events were proving popular with audiences for whom there were few other opportunities to engage with scientists in this kind of cultural context.

In a recent interview, Professor Lord Winston reflected on the Festival’s landmark year:

it started very much as the brainchild of Kathy Sykes and Frank Burnet; what they did was to change the way scientists engage with the public – the idea of scientists listening to the public a bit more was quite novel ten years ago, but now I think it’s become more accepted. In consequence, the Cheltenham Science Festival is fairly widely accepted as one of the best festivals in the world of its kind.

It would be too self-aggrandising for me to say that Cheltenham is one of the best in the world of course, but coming from Robert Winston it means a lot. He’s certainly right about listening to the public though – hearing and valuing what our audiences say is at the heart of the Festival’s philosophy, and its success – and it is reflected in public demand for tickets, which has increased by more than 20% in each of the last three years.

In the UK, public engagement with science is well-established, but it began to change significantly in 2000 when a House of Lords report said that science was too top-down, that scientists needed to listen more and talk about their own values and morality in order to earn the trust of the public. In the ten years since the Festival began this idea has rapidly gained momentum, and since 2005 a lot has changed – we now have the Beacons for Public Engagement, the signature of The Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research, and Sciencewise, which are all about sharing best practice amongst researchers and funders, and embedding public dialogue in government policy-making. As a result, scientists are being supported to do more public engagement and more of them feel that what they are doing is valued.

ScienceInTheSquare_crop.jpgCheltenham Science Festival didn’t make these things happen of course, but it has had a really important catalysing role. It has shown the thousands of scientists, government officials and partners who have been involved with it over the years (many of them for all ten years) how science can be part of a cultural celebration – as much about the quality of the ‘festival’ as it is the science – where production standards are high, speakers are of a good quality and science is presented in a way that allows every member of the public to build their own experience and be heard.

In 2005 the Festival started FameLab – a search for exceptional science communicators – as a way of promoting these values and nurturing a new stream of talent. Its format is familiar from reality TV shows – scientists give a three minute presentation to a panel of judges and all finalists take part in a MasterClass weekend, where they work on their presentation skills and build networks.


In 2007, FameLab was adopted by the British Council as one of its flagship science projects, first in a South East Europe pilot then expanding in 2010 to include 16 countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. A new three-year partnership between the Festival and the British Council is set to take the competition even further in 2011. The winners from all of those countries come to Cheltenham Science Festival each year to participate in the FameLab International Grand Final – you’ll be able to watch it live on Saturday 11 June at 8.30pm on our all-new website, which launches on 5th June.

It has many amazing success stories in countries where the concept of public engagement with science barely existed before: science communication has now been recognised by the Serbian Ministry of Education as a priority area; 2008 winner Croatian chemist Marko Kosicek became a media star upon his return to Zagreb, and has featured in everything from Cosmopolitan to crossword puzzles; science festivals have been launched in both Bulgaria and Serbia by FameLab researchers with the support of the British Council, and the first science show has been broadcast on Bulgarian TV; a group of Greek Famelab finalists has set up a science theatre group, giving shows in schools; and in Turkey, the visit of HM Queen Elizabeth and David Milliband included a meeting with young Turkish Famelab finalists… and we even have two FameLab weddings coming up!

FameLab is genuinely spreading the word of public engagement, building a powerful international network of science communicators who are working together in ways we never imagined. The Cheltenham stage of Famelab International brings together researchers from otherwise politically hard to reconcile states, and they become close friends even through controversial periods, when they maintain friendly dialogue of trust and respect.

Like any Festival, it is the people that surround Cheltenham Science Festival that really make it successful – its incredible buzz comes from all these hundreds of individuals who each have a sense of ownership and a personal stake in its success.

If you want to read more highlights from the World Science Festival, you can find a summary of all our coverage here. You can also find out more about the Cheltenham Science Festival in UCL’s blog, or listen to their audio grabs here.


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