Science festivals: For debating serious societal issues or just for fun?

Researchers, science journalists and comedians all come together at science festivals to inform and entertain the public with science. Sometimes there’s overlap with history (Lucy Worsley’s Fit to Rule) or books (James Gleick’s The Information), but often researchers simply sit on a panel and try to answer a question or come to a consensus on a particular topic (Is My Immune System Normal?).

At The Times Cheltenham Science Festival this past week, I saw comedy (Dara O Briain’s School of Hard Sums, Simon Watt’s The Ugly Animal Preservation Society), serious debate (Adam Rutherford discussing animal research, Science Minister David Willetts on science and the economy), and attempts to inform the public about all sorts of current science.

Attending science festivals is an expensive business. I was only able to make my way to Cheltenham for the week thanks to a UCL Graduate School bursary. It also takes time. The Cheltenham Science Festival runs from Tuesday mid-day through to Sunday night. It’s not most people’s initial idea of a fabulous holiday (though I managed to burn in the Cheltenham sun), so why do so many choose to attend?

Eric Jensen and Nicola Buckley have published a paper entitled Why people attend science festivals: interests, motivations and self-reported benefits of public engagement with research. They asked nearly 1000 Cambridge Science Festival attendees to answer a questionnaire about their experiences. They also followed up with some focus groups.

(Ironically, this paper about public engagement was published in a not-open-access journal called Public Understanding of Science. If you don’t belong to a university with access, expect to pay USD $25 to find out if people like science festivals.)

Crucial to the research is the distinction between first-, second- and third-order science engagement. First-order science engagement aims to spread science information and to invigorate public interest in science. Second-order engagement requires an active audience and involves creating a dialogue between scientists and the public. Third-order engagement gets very meta and aims to determine how science can serve society. During my time at Cheltenham, I saw first- and second-order engagement. Comedy fell squarely into first-order engagement, but the back-and-forth discussions between vegans and biomedical scientists about animal research were certainly second-order.

Calls for higher-order engagement from eminent societies have been made in the past decade, but are science festivals the right place for this? During my time in Cheltenham, I never paused and thought that I should be making “pluralistic stakeholder perspectives engaging in reflexive, critically-informed discussions and debates” (Jensen & Buckley, 2012, pg 3). No, I was far more likely to say “Dara O Briain was great fun this afternoon. I wish his interview with Peter Higgs tomorrow wasn’t sold out!”

Apparently I’m not the only person who feels this way. Jensen and Buckley found that their respondents were generally very happy with the bias towards first-order engagement at the Cambridge Science Festival. Attendees wanted to learn and to renew their excitement about science. Jensen and Buckley’s research suggests that the public doesn’t generally care about getting involved in philosophical debate at science festivals. In fact, one of the most common negative comments was that scientist panellists didn’t engage in enough conversation with each other. The attendees didn’t worry that their opinions weren’t being heard, but that the scientists weren’t hearing the opinions of other scientists.

The authors didn’t go so far as to draw conclusions about what science festivals should be, so I will. I think that we should relax about trying to philosophise about and during science festivals. They’re good fun and should continue to aim to enthuse young people to get and stay interested in science as well as to inform the general public about what we do. Let’s just have fun at festivals in the summer and continue to aim for second- and third-order engagement in other forums.

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