Response to: ‘British Science Festival: Rationale for Change’

This is my personal response to the document ‘British Science Festival: Rationale for Change’, which has been circulated among Section Recorders, General Committee Members, Council Members and others.

The main topic discussed in the document is the perceived diminishing press coverage of the festival, particularly in the print media. This is portrayed as a very serious issue, implying that getting media coverage is the ‘raison d’etre’ of the festival. If this is really what the festival organisers believe, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that the primary aim of the festival is to bring science to the public. Good media coverage is a bonus, but an event which gets schoolchildren excited about maths, physics or chemistry is unlikely to be of interest to the media, but is an immensely important component of the festival! As Chemistry Recorder, I have run a range of different events at festivals, from presentations of cutting edge science, to demonstrations of ‘kitchen chemistry’ to children and their parents. Both of these contrasting events are equally important. The first might attract press interest if it is the ‘right’ topic to generate headlines, but the second almost never will. It’s therefore really dangerous to use a desire to generate press interest as a criterion for deciding what events should be included in the festival!

Moving on, the document mentions the response of the new Vice-President to the events proposed for the 2012 festival. It’s understandable that someone new to a post might have a different ‘take’ on things, but the comments made, quoted in the document, need some discussion and consideration. Firstly, although some universities have started proposing their own events at the festival, traditionally the Recorders have provided the link between the festival and the interesting science being performed in their respective disciplines. For example, if there is cutting edge research being done on, say, new battery materials, and we think it should be included in the programme, I will approach the people doing this research and invite them to present their research at the festival. The advantage of this being done via Recorders is that we can act as a ‘filter’, and ensure prospective speakers know what level to pitch their talks at, etc. Also, the comment about ‘cutting-edge research department proposals from leading universities’ needs a response, which is that, generally, developments in cutting-edge research are presented at discipline specific conferences. However Recorders, as subject experts, get to hear about these developments, and bring them to the festival. University researchers are unlikely to think of the British Science Festival as a place to present their latest work, so they need to be identified and invited. Recorders, with their considerable subject expertise, are in a unique position to do this.

In Chemistry, we do base our programme at the host university, but for purely practical reasons. We need access to laboratories to prepare for demonstration lectures, and also suitably equipped lecture theatres in which to host them. This can be done much more smoothly if our section President is locally based. But it doesn’t mean that our programme will be dominated by local speakers, and we have encountered no expectation that this should be the case.

The document then returns to the theme of press coverage, and laments the lack of press coverage that has arisen from section events. But really that’s not surprising, since press coverage is only one of the factors that are considered in planning an event. I return to my initial point that the festival isn’t just about press coverage. Enthusing young people in a scientific discipline is surely as important as getting good press headlines?

Finally the document cuts to the chase, and discusses reconsidering the role of sections as the festival evolves. Considering the points in turn:

  • Abolition of some or all of the sections in their currant (sic) form: if this is done, it is done at the British Science Association’s peril. Sections provide links with scientific disciplines that will be difficult, if not impossible, to re-create. Abolition will lose these important links, and the services of an enthusiastic group of volunteers who spend many hours helping the Association. In current research grant parlance, think about the ‘matched funding’ we provide (as pointed out by Richard Waller, Geology Recorder)
  • Establishing an Advisory Body out of those Section Recorders who would like to remain active in the Festival: but surely all Recorders are in this category; you don’t need to form an ‘Advisory Body’, just talk to us collectively!
  • Developing a 2 year Festival plan for each Section where they focus on delivering events for one aspect of the Festival, such as the Young Peoples’ Programme or media or new research: this shows a misunderstanding of how we work. Our programme each year depends on our President, and on what the current interesting scientific developments are. We can’t be constrained by 2-year plans; scientific developments don’t work like that.

The document then mentions discussions with the Royal Society about canvassing their fellows with a view to ‘find out what is new in their various fields of research’. But this is merely a duplication of the role that section Recorders provide, and implies that in some sense our knowledge and overview of our field is lacking. It would have been far better to have discussed this with the sections first. We already have such links; better to use the resources that are already available!

I don’t have a problem with the proposed changes in the programme planning process that are discussed in the document, and I don’t think any of the sections would. But the general message of the document, that somehow the sections need to be abolished or seriously reconstructed in order to improve press coverage at the festival, is seriously misguided!

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