Science festivals are a creative opportunity to engage with science

Across the city, colourful posters and decorations line windows. Stages are set up for performances, and university and public buildings ring with the sound of laughter and mini-explosions. The excitement in the air is so thick you can almost taste it. It is festival season.

No, it is not the Fringe: it is the annual Edinburgh International Science Festival, which is running from April 1 to 16 this year. It is one of the largest science festivals in Europe, delivering a massive range of science shows, workshops, screenings, and exhibitions across the whole city.

The term ‘science festival’ might sound paradoxical to some, but it’s a real way to get people to engage with science in new and creative ways. Over the years, science has stopped being a forbidding ivory tower of knowledge inhabited by mostly grey-bearded white men, and has become something people from all walks of life can interact with and incorporate in their  life.

Perhaps most importantly, these festivals make science fun – something that could be a solution to the declining uptake of science and mathematics subjects in secondary schools.

In 2015, the number of pupils taking science and mathematics subjects at Higher decreased by four per cent from 2014.

At the same time, a major international survey found that Scotland’s scores for maths and science had declined, pulling the country’s world ranking down from 11th to 24th for maths and 10th to 19th for science.

“One of the challenges we have is the perception that science is hard,” said Professor Suzanne Miller at the World Science Festival in Brisbane, Australia. “The opportunity to rethink the way that we present science, the way that we teach science, and the way that we get hooked, is here.”

Science festivals aren’t solely the domain of children and school pupils. A number of festival events invite adults to take part in discussions and interact with exhibits. But inclusivity is still a challenge that science festivals face; not everyone can go into the city to take part in events, and not everyone will be interested.

Sometimes, just a change in location can have a great effect. For example, the Middle of Scotland Science Festival tours in locations where science is underrepresented. In other cases, science communicators partner with community groups to create events that are relevant and meaningful.

“The way forward isn’t just to produce events for the community you’re trying to reach,” Dr Gary Kerr, a researcher in Science Communication at the University of Salford, told The Student: “You co-produce with them – go to the community, find out what they want, and work with them. The more innovative and meaningful events are the ones that are co-produced.”

Science festivals provide a platform to address wider issues, such as representation, gender equality, and even criticism of scientific and academic culture. But, in a time of fake news and post-truth politics, worries about public distrust are not unfounded. The Student asked Dr Kerr how science communication can have a place in this.

“The public do have anxieties about experts and expertise,” he said: “Scientists need to engage more with the public. They need to be open about what they’re doing, and honest about uncertainties.”

Science festivals offer a space for innovation, creation, and empowerment. What other event can bring people together to learn and engage with science on such a huge scale?

Dr Kerr sums it up perfectly: “Science festivals are a force for good.”

Image: Kim Traynor

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The Student Newspaper 2016