UK Science Festival Network Conference 2018 – notes from Swansea

By Dr Caroline Gillett, Research Engagement Officer

At the end of 2018 I went along to the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) Conference which took place in Swansea at the delightful National Waterfront Museum – a great venue for a bijoux meeting of approximately 100 festival organizers, science communicators and public engagement professionals. The UKSFN comprises a membership of 45 festivals who share best practice, meeting annually to discuss innovation and challenges across the sector such as funding, diversity and content development.

The conference began with an interesting whistle-stop overview of sector trends pooled from the learning and statistics collected from the membership over the past year and delivered by Ivvet Modinou, the Director of the British Science Festival and the driving force behind the establishment of the UKSFN. As part of joining the network, festivals agree to share select data sets which helps the sector as a whole identify trends or gaps such as for example, geographical coverage.

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Following this, a panel session with representatives from the Wellcome Trust, British Science Association, UK Research & Innovation and Science Festivals Alliance (USA) convened to discuss the future direction of science festivals. I was particularly struck with the contribution and excellent examples offered by Julie Ann Fooshee who spoke about activity carried out in Montana to engage the Native American community with science in a culturally respectful way during traditional ceremonial celebration events. The initiative focused on putting STEM role models from the community in charge of the science and working alongside them, rather than top-down engagement delivered exclusively by those outside the community, which I feel can often be the case.

During the panel discussion, another theme emerged which interested me greatly – that of the ethics of neutrality. How neutral should science festivals be in light of major societal challenges like climate change? There should of course be an onus on science festivals to open up debate and include diverse and divergent voices, but should there not also be a point at which fact is highlighted over fiction, however disturbing or ‘un-fun’ these facts may be? Should festivals not take responsibility to bring these facts to the fore? Of course how to do this in an engaging and audience-friendly way is the real question, as no festival wants to put people off with really dry or doomsday-like content. Neutrality is definitely a topic which I think would be ripe to explore further at a future event!

Later that day we also heard from Alexander Fefegha who raised awareness of social injustice brought about through racial and gender bias in artificial intelligence (AI) products and systems. He highlighted some recent case studies and research, prompting the audience to think about where AI is already being used in a festivals context, such as how algorithm software is used in marketing and thus targeting or ignoring specific audiences. This is especially important to consider if we genuinely want to diversify festival audiences.

Next it was time for me to choose workshops. Since registering for the event I’d been looking forward to hearing from Ellie Runcie, who works for the Design Council, and this session did not disappoint. Ellie spoke about how they use design thinking to innovate new solutions to societal challenges, in turn increasing the productivity and the quality of different environments through an iterative process. Ellie used an example of a project she’d been involved with where the waiting room experience of different roles (patients, families, medical staff, admin or non-medical staff) was tracked in A&E units in hospitals. In what was a rather striking, yet profoundly simple example, she showed how design could highlight how vastly different the waiting room experience was for the different people present and how simple changes to information displays in situ could improve the experience. Where medical staff perceived activity to exist (behind the scenes), patient’s perceived silence, allowing added worry to creep in. A flow chart of all the possible journey pathways (and estimated waiting times) was created as a handout and wall display, vastly reducing anxiety and disruption. It’s made me think more about how to take this ‘step back before you begin to build’ approach in what I do going forward.

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Next I opted for a session from Tamara Poles from the North Carolina Science Festival, who spoke enthusiastically about their IMPACTS scicomm training programme aimed at increasing the diversity of their engagement activity. Each year 50 scientists from across North Carolina competitively apply to take part in this intensive training programme consisting of two all-day workshops, followed by a commitment from participants to put this learning into practice as part of the festival and another local event of their choosing in their own community. I’ve also found that training works best when there is a clear opportunity to translate theory into practice (e.g. I previously ran an Arts & Science Workshop Programme that fed into Festival content). Tamara also spoke of how this year they had partnered with Art of Cool Festival (a ‘remix’ of the Black American Music Festival) to carry out sciences activities for families enjoying a culture-filled (their shared mission) weekend which goes far beyond just music.

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The final session I went to was focused on Involving Young Voices. Rather than making assumptions about what young people want from a festival experience, the speakers encouraged attendees to involve youngsters in the planning and management process to offer skills development opportunities for young people, which in turn should improve the legacy and impact of such events. Young volunteer Lucy Aur gave an especially refreshing pitch about her motivations and involvement with the #iwill campaign on mental health, reminding us that “young people can not only help with solutions, they can help with prevents too”. She also explained how her volunteer work had enabled her to take a welcome break from her responsibilities as a young carer, whilst also becoming a role model to other peers.

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The day concluded with a keynote talk from Kate Dale, the lady behind Sport England’s impactful viral This Girl Can campaign. It was really interesting to hear how the campaign was masterminded, as well as how the team fought continuously for authenticity during the decision-making process. She told us about the public’s response to the campaign (from ‘This Girl Can’ tribute tattoos to the cold hard statistics which showed how their target group’s exercise rates have increased) and she explained how this learning and the gaps identified have fed into the second wave of the campaign which has recently been hitting screens. Look out for it!

In conclusion, the conference was really enjoyable and felt quite different to a lot of the other events I tend to go to. I really liked how the sessions were forward-looking and quite ‘leftfield’ (i.e. AI bias; Design theory) but still sector relevant, rather than programming session after session on the ins and outs of festival delivery would have bored the crowd very quickly, given the level of expertise in the room. So well done to those involved in programming sessions for not going down the obvious route!

If you are running or planning on starting a festival or big recurring event, it’s a no brainer to go along and you don’t need to be a member of the network to take part, but there is a fee to cover costs. I found people really friendly and didn’t feel out of place despite not currently being directly in the festivals scene, although (disclaimer) I have worked extensively on interdisciplinary festivals in my past life and I still run standalone events as part of my current work. For further information check out the UKSFN website and take a look at some of my live tweets from the event using the #UKSFN18 hashtag.