UKSFN learning curves: how science festivals are innovating for young people in the COVID-19 era

Since 2017 the UK Science Festivals Network, with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI),  has supported its members to bring young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and researchers together.  The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how people can interact with each other. Science festival practitioners have had to re-think their approaches, particularly for audiences who do not necessarily see science as for them.

For this year’s round of UKRI funding, we wanted to support UKSFN members to innovate for the target audience in this new space. What resulted is a real mix of projects ranging from digital game development, to urban design, virtual dance movement workshops and lots of other interactive (and government guideline friendly) activities.  To aid reflection amongst ourselves and the wider engagement sector, we will share learnings from this year’s funded projects as and when they happen. Blogs written by grant recipients from across the country will be published until all have been delivered in February 2021. The first in this ‘UKSFN learning curves’ series is by Matthew Allen and Lisa Whittaker from Cardiff Science Festival.

UKSFN learning curves #1: Earning our “New Ways of Engaging” badge

Every online meeting I attend at the moment begins with “Can you see me? Can you hear me?” Some of the attendees have problems connecting and that’s if we all manage to agree which video conferencing software to use in the first place. So, how then do you work with four different partners, to run an engagement project for 11-14 year old’s on-line, which is usually done face-to-face? That’s the challenge that we are facing at Cardiff Science Festival, working on our UKRI/UKSFN: Bringing young people and researchers together 2020 project Impact Games.

The aim of our project is to inspire young Girl Guides* to get into coding, by supporting them to not just play but create their own computer games. Impact Gamers, a BAFTA award winning community interest company, are experienced in working with young people to help take their game ideas and make them a reality. The games that the young people will create will be based on the work of local researchers** in Cardiff. This could be a game about designing a drug to help treat cancer, or a game to detect weaknesses in bridges and other structures.

This project is an opportunity to inspire the next generation of female computer scientists. The number of girls that study computer science at University is shockingly low (19% of the cohort in 2017/18), so we hope to empower and encourage more girls, particularly from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to get into coding.

The Girl Guides, Impact Gamers, undergraduate students and researchers should all begin working together in early Autumn. Their games will be completed by February 2021 and showcased at the Cardiff Science Festival. However, the uncertainty of how engagement is going to work by then means that we have to be flexible and adaptable. Whilst much of the early engagement will likely be digital, we have a travel budget set aside for when face-to-face engagement is hopefully allowed again. The games will be playable at the festival and we’ve already began planning how to host them for people to play online as well as in person.

We expect to encounter a few hurdles along the way. For example, digital issues with video conferencing and file sharing are likely to occur, but we’re confident that we can plan ahead to either avoid or account for such problems. Digital engagement is often better for researchers and university students, many of whom have families and large workloads. Eliminating the travel time by using video conferencing is likely to be more appealing to many people, even if it brings with it its own challenges. The most important thing is that we engage young people and inspire them to learn new skills and see that computing is for everyone.

*Girl Guides

It was important for us to identify an organised group to work with, who were meeting on-line duringthe COVID-19 pandemic and who would be keen to engage with the project. The answer for us was the Girl Guides. Most girl guide groups have adapted incredibly well to meeting online, both in terms of technical setup, but also on considerations such as on-line safety and accessibility. The ethos of Girlguiding fits nicely with our project and we’ve found that the girl guide groups have been keen to be a part of it, even with the time requirements that the project has. Girl Guides will also be able to earn badges for taking part in the project.

**STEM Ambassadors and Researchers

Students from Cardiff University will work with the Girl Guides to support them with coding and designing the graphics for the game. Recruiting student volunteers and university researchers can be difficult. The students have been doing their end of year exams and have since gone home, making it more difficult to keep in touch. August and September are typically the times when researchers go on holiday, which combined with the current working from home rules mean that recruiting these groups could be tricky. Constant communication and realistic timelines are key. Initial interest from both groups has been encouraging, so we’re hopeful of recruiting everyone that we need.

More in the ‘UKSFN learning curves’ series’: 

Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the UK’s thriving science festivals scene

By Anna Woolman, Engagement Manager – British Science Association

Today (23 July), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee has published a report in response to the inquiry it launched in April to gather experiences from the diverse sectors under the DCMS remit on how COVID-19 was affecting them.

Science festivals are a key cultural offering in many UK towns and cities annually. Over 40 UK-based science festivals are members of the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN), and UKSFN formed a response to the DCMS inquiry to highlight how science festivals across the country were being affected by the pandemic. Over half of the network’s members responded to the survey and we also sought views from members’ meetings, which have been held monthly since the start of lockdown.

Significant short-term impact

The survey revealed that, in the short-term, members have been significantly affected in the following ways:

Festival cancellations: 63% had to cancel their 2020 festivals that were set to take place from March onwards;

Reduced income: 55% have lost a proportion of, or all, their 2020 income. While some have been able to re-purpose grant funding for resilience, others have lost sponsorship deals entirely;

Ability to retain staff: 33% have furloughed their staff, 22% have deployed staff to other work and 15% have had to make staff redundant, not renew their contracts and/or stall hiring processes. The remainder have not made any changes, but most are unsure how long they will be able to retain this for.

Possible longer-term impacts

There is a large degree of uncertainty about what the future will hold and widespread concerns that the science festival, and wider live events, sector will be one of the last to recover. UKSFN members highlighted several possible long-term impacts, namely:

  1. Festival survival threatened: 41% are hopeful they will be able to continue running their festival post 2020 and 32% also foresee being able to do so after significantly adjusting their format, scale and staff numbers. 27% foresee serious implications in their ability to run their festival post 2020.
  2. Economic stability threatened: Most science festival business models rely heavily on grants and corporate sponsorship to ensure events are either free or low-cost to make them accessible to a wide number of people. It is expected to be increasingly difficult to secure funding from these sources because of increased demand and the strong prospect of societal economic instability. As a result, there is a real possibility that some science festivals will not be able to continue in the long-run, or at least not be able to provide economically accessible content.
  3. Inability to bring people together face-to-face: In 2019, members in the Network had over one million face-to-face interactions with members of the public. As a result of COVID-19, the figures for 2020 will look very different. Many members report their ability to continue beyond 2020 being dependent on when Government advice about running events is released and what shape this takes. Although organisers have been able to be responsive and resilient in their immediate response to COVID-19, long-term uncertainty makes building objectives and executing large-scale, effective, public focussed projects difficult.
  4. Digital versus physical events: While digital content is a useful short-term solution to public engagement in the pandemic era, there is recognition amongst members that physical engagement is still, and will continue to be, a vital aspect of festivals. Where they take place, festivals play an important role in community cohesion and support. Bringing people together in a shared physical space is a fundamental aspect of this. Physical opportunities for people to engage is also important when considering audiences who face digital exclusion. In this regard, the sector is facing a significant challenge to overcome. Funding and development opportunities for practitioners is vital if it is to innovate in this area.
  5. Shifted public priorities: There are concerns about audiences’ bandwidth to engage with cultural events, like science festivals, even after lockdown measures have been lifted. COVID-19 has been a monumental societal shock – alongside the issues surrounding public comfort with being in large groups, there will no doubt be issues around people’s willingness to spend time and money on ‘non-essential’ entertainment activities and to try new things which are not in their usual remit.

The UKSFN’s response was one of over 580 pieces of written evidence submitted to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry. You can read the UKSFN submission and the full report and evidence submitted on the Parliament website.

Looking ahead

The pandemic has not only highlighted the need for relevant and inclusive science communication, but also the value of community cohesion. The BSA believes that science festivals can serve as an important catalyst for both – now and in a post-COVID-19 world – but, as this consultation process has shown, their future is at risk. We will continue to support UKSFN members, identify possible funding opportunities, and champion the role of science festivals in the months ahead.



(Banner image courtesy of bluedotUKSFN member)

festival bunting

UKSFN: Power in numbers

At this time of uncertainty, networks and communities of practice are key for so many in the science engagement sector. Ivvet Modinou, Chair of the UK Science Festivals Network, explains why…

At the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN), we know the value of festivals; an opportunity for people to come together to celebrate, and sometimes challenge, science and its place in society through a local lens.

Each year we ask the members of the Network to share some key figures so we can gather a snapshot of the sector and its impact. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2019, science festivals collectively enabled over a million face-to-face interactions and our members worked with over 11,500 researchers, giving them the opportunity to meet the public and share their work. Not to mention mobilising over 5,000 volunteers who gave up their time to help make festivals happen in their local area.

However, we know that 2020 will tell a very different story.

As social distancing becomes the new normal, festivals and live events across the country ranging from science to music events, and from literary festivals and art exhibitions, are quite rightly cancelling or adapting their plans. These are difficult decisions, plagued with uncertainty, that have many implications for staff, partners and audiences. The Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), which represents 65 arts and music festivals in the UK, recently reported that their members may be facing redundancies of 59% on average, and the sector could lose more than half of its workforce between September 2020 and February 2021 without support. Moreover, these cancellations raise questions about how science festivals can ensure we are still there for our audiences in meaningful ways, and how do we support researchers to continue engaging the public with science?

At the UKSFN, we have been thinking about how to answer these questions, and to best support and bolster our science festival community to think about how we refocus and rebuild after COVID-19. We can do none of those things without support from our peers and it’s in times of crisis that we realise how important that community is. Whether we see it or not, community appears, seemingly out of nowhere, when we are struck down – like an invisible safety net helping us bounce back. The stronger the community, the stronger the net.

Being able to lean on each other, mentally not physically of course, in these times is so critical. We are trying to keep our members connected – to share knowledge, opportunities, or frustrations, whether it’s through WhatsApp, Zoom or a simple phone call. We are here to listen and provide a space for conversations around how we as a sector move forward, whilst listening to what people want and need. We are also working with our colleagues in the US and take inspiration from their innovative Listening Tours with different audiences.

Together, the UKSFN, which is supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), continue to advocate and reaffirm the importance of science festivals in conversations with funding bodies and decision makers. We have begun work on a submission to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport inquiry on the ‘Impact of COVID-19 on DCMS sectors’ and we have already collected the views of our members to feed into that important inquiry.

Science festivals are an important component of the science engagement ecosystem. Whilst our community may not see it now, as we are busy putting out fires and thinking about how we survive financially, this could serve as the pause we all need. A pause to not talk but to listen, to not plan but to reflect. We are a creative, vibrant community and using this strategic patience, I am confident that we will make it through to the other side stronger and better than ever.

Three years of science festivals engaging new audiences with research

by Anna Woolman, Engagement Manager, British Science Association 

Over the last three years, members of the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) have been developing their approaches to engaging young people with research, focussing on those from backgrounds traditionally underserved by science engagement activities.

Since 2017, funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has enabled Festivals to hone their ability to engage with audiences that are not generally seen at science communication events. Now, they not only have a better understanding of how to reach such audiences, but also how to utilise researchers and community partnerships to do so.

The development process has been iterative. In 2017 Festivals who applied for the funding were generally not as confident in targeting those with low levels of engagement and from low socioeconomic backgrounds, let alone the 11-14 year old target audience. Compared with families, teenagers are generally harder to engage with outside the classroom, let alone those who may face additional challenges in their lives. As such, it was important that Festivals stepped out of their comfort zones and trialled alternative ways of working with this demographic.

From the beginning it was clear that the projects most successful in engaging with the target audience were those that formed a meaningful local community partnership with a group that had led to trusted relationships with them. This evolved to encouraging applicants to partner with community groups in 2018 and finally it being a requirement of the funding in 2019.

The effectiveness of the community partnerships is highlighted in the 2019 evaluation, where those leading the groups were interviewed. There was unanimous desire and sense of urgency amongst them for similar projects to take place, especially those that put their audiences in direct contact with active researchers. Not only did involvement in the project positively impact their audiences, but the funding also enabled the provision of high-quality free activities for them and this was a key reason for the groups’ involvement. The community groups we spoke to are constantly looking for funding opportunities to provide services for their users and this project enables them, in a small way, to do that. As one community group leader highlighted “it’s funders who are hard to reach not people” – a sentiment echoed amongst interviewees.

A key requirement of the project has always been to provide a platform for active researchers to engage with audiences, especially those with whom they may not usually interact. Throughout the years, feedback from researchers has been consistently positive. Many remarked valuing the opportunity to reach new audiences, but also develop their confidence to engage public with their research more generally. It was often said that they would like to be involved in more projects like it in the future. Projects like this enable researchers to take an active role in making their research sphere more accessible for people from a wider variety of backgrounds and, importantly, to understand their needs. It also encourages them to expand their view of what science engagement is and can be.

One of the most interesting aspects that has evolved since 2017 has been the reflections and understandings of the Festival organisers themselves. Feedback from 2017 suggested some had difficulty finding and maintaining connections with the target audience. This changed in 2018, where there was a demonstrable learning curve with how to effectively work with community groups to reach and engage with the target audience. Here, it became clear that flexibility, building trust, perseverance and above all listening were key.

These insights amalgamated in 2019 where organisers went a step beyond focussing on the audience alone, commenting they were keen to involve more researchers who were from similar backgrounds to their target audiences. This reflects the growing emphasis on the importance of role modelling in science engagement. It is positive to see Festivals integrate this way of thinking in the development of their projects.

Having worked with the UKSFN and its members over the three years, it has been a rewarding experience to see a collective evolution in approaches to working with new audiences. Science Festivals are uniquely placed in their towns and cities to facilitate relationships with active researchers and local communities. Organising a Festival is no easy feat, and organisers are often juggling numerous projects, partnerships and key performance indicators at any one time. Despite this, the fact that UKSFN members are keen to apply for funding to reach audiences outside of their usual remit demonstrates the passion and ambition in the sector to learn and develop.

What could come out of this project in the future is exciting and there is no doubt that Science Festivals will continue rising to the challenge. As we kick off the fourth iteration of this project in 2020, we’re looking forward to providing Festivals with further opportunities to trial new ways of working and create more impactful projects for young people and researchers alike in their towns and cities.


Rounding up the Network in 2018

By Anna Woolman, UKSFN coordinator

2018 was another big year for the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN). Not only did we finish it 50 members strong, but we also started and continued a number of exciting projects…


UK Science Festivals Network conference (UKSFN18)

For the second year, we brought together science festival organisers and those interested in the sector to discuss best practice in live science events. This year there was a focus on diversity and inclusion, from practical advice on diversifying those delivering content, to learnings from the national campaign to get more women and girls into sports (‘This Girl Can’), and much more. Catch up on what was discussed here.


UKRI/UKSFN: engaging underserved audiences

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the UKSFN partnered again for the second year to engage underserved young people with science through their local science festivals. A number of members got involved, partnering with local community groups to deliver a variety of successful activities and long-term engagement projects. Keep an eye out for a summary of this project in 2018 which will be posted online in the coming months.


UKSFN: innovating by design

Over the final 6 months of 2018, 5 festivals in the Network were supported and guided by the Design Council to develop their approaches in reaching underserved audiences. This pilot project not only sought to give festivals the chance to reflect on their practices, but also provided valuable professional development opportunities – something that is often left by the wayside in the face of more pressing demands for festival organisers. We are thankful to the Wellcome Trust for supporting the first iteration of this collaboration and look forward to seeing where it goes in 2019. Read more about the project here.


We are proud of what has come out of these projects over the year and look forward to building on them in 2019. However, none of it is possible without our members, who, over the last year ran 4,080 events involving 10,941 scientists, researchers and presenters. This culminated in 1,225,779 face-to-face interactions with the public and the involvement of 3,074 volunteers. This is all summarised neatly in our most recent infographic. As ever, we are very proud to represent a diverse and passionate group of festivals and their organisers. We cannot wait to continue working with everyone over the coming months.

If you are interested in joining the Network or want to discuss potential partnerships, please get in touch at

Looking back at UKSFN18


The changing face of festivals 

Algorithmic bias and race 

Innovating by design 

Celebrating scientific achievements 

Thinking differently about evaluation and impact

Starting from scratch: an American tale 

Making IMPACTS with diversity 

Keeping the show on the road 

Diversifying arts events in science festivals 

Involving young voices 

This Girl Can

Following the success of the first UK Science Festivals Network conference in 2017, we re-lit the fire for our second. This time we visited the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.  

Science festival and event organisers from across the UK and beyond descended on the Welsh city, a place still riding on the accomplishments gained from hosting the British Science Festival back in 2016.

Attendees discovered the best ways to diversify audiences and speakers, joined workshops exploring new approaches to programming, and learnt about what else is happening in the festival sphere across the pond, amongst other topics. Most importantly, there were plenty of opportunities to network and socialise with other conference attendees.  

This year, the programme was even more packed, meaning there were concurrent sessions and the chance for people to delve into the topics that meant the most to them and their work. Here, you’ll find an overview of what was discussed in each session, so even if you weren’t able to attend one (or the conference at all), you can get up to speed… 

The changing face of festivals 

Panel members: Jenni Chambers (UK Research and Innovation), Farrah Nazir (Wellcome Trust), Clio Heslop (British Science Association) and Julie Fooshee (US Science Festival Alliance) 

Chair: Ivvet Modinou (UK Science Festivals Network/British Science Association) 

The opening panel introduced some themes of the UK Science Festivals Network activities during 2018, and set up discussions for the rest of the conference:  

  • Jenni Chambers explained how they take a strategic look at science engagement in the UK, and how festivals fit into that 
  • Farah Nazir spoke about making the way we programme festivals and science engagement more user-centred. She gave two examples of their work: involving shift workers in sleep research and consulting BAME (Black, Asian and minority Ethnic) communities on mental health research 
  • Clio Heslop talked about how the science engagement sector thinks about diversity and inclusion, and why this is important for festivals to consider. One example she mentioned was the controversy around the lack of female performers at Wireless Festival. 
  • Finally, Julie Fooshee spoke from a US point of view on the need for discussing political issues in science festivals – for example, conversations around climate change or fake news. She also spoke about examples of truly community-led festivals, such as SpectrUM and the Arlee celebration in Montana.

Algorithmic bias and race 

Speaker: Alex Fefegha (Comuzi) 

“AI (artificial intelligence) is making bad human decisions faster for us”: these are the hard-hitting words used by Alex to begin his session, where he took delegates on an insightful journey through his Masters research on racial bias in artificial AI. This naturally led to the ever-important point being made of the need to involve diverse perspectives when developing algorithms. This is an issue which is paralleled in the science engagement sector when developing programmes which appeal to a wide audience. He urged all science festival organisers to consider their role in communicating with the public. 

If you’re uncertain about AI, Comuzi produced a helpful cheat sheet. Check it out 

Innovating by design 

Speaker: Ellie Runcie (Design Council) 

Ellie Runcie started by encouraging everyone in attendance to identify as “a designer”, mimicking the British Science Association, who believe that everyone is a scientist. She introduced the concept that “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. The Design Council do this by responding to national challenges such as housing provision, health and well-being, and accessibility of services. Additionally, design skills are increasingly essential to the way we live our lives – a Future of Jobs report by World Economic Forum predicts “creativity” as the third most-important skill by 2020.  

The second half of the session introduced the double-diamond approach: engaging your customer, defining a problem, developing a solution, and learning from the delivery of the solution. The session closed with a practical exercise, where we worked in small groups to analyse photos of someone’s everyday experiences, and think about what could make their lives better. Conversation was sparked about how we understand, and often mis-understand, festival audiences, and how to keep learning from user experiences of science festivals. 

Celebrating scientific achievements 

Speaker: Jaclyn Bell (UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres) 

Jaclyn Bell detailed some upcoming anniversaries in 2019 in science and beyond, from the well-known Moon landing to the lesser heard of Sex Disqualification Act centenary and 150 years of the periodic table. Jaclyn opened the discussion to the audience who provided some other ideas, such as the national parks 70th anniversary and the centenary of the Forestry Commission, amongst much more. This session highlighted the importance for us to celebrate such anniversaries which have directly and indirectly shaped the science we communicate today. They also provide useful springboards for festival and event themes.  

Thinking differently about evaluation and impact 

Speaker: Savita Willmott (Bristol Natural History Consortium/Bristol Festival of Nature) 

This session was a series of discussions between science festival directors and other key organisations in the sector, exploring a series of questions: How and why do we evaluate our programmes? Do we enjoy it? How much does evaluation influence future programming? and How skilled do we feel as sector to undertake this work? It was a busy and vibrant session, demonstrating that evaluation is still a key area of interest and development for festivals. In the last section, Savita Willmott from Festival of Nature presented a programme they are undertaking with the US Science Alliance and EvalFest programme, exploring new ways for science festivals to communicate their environmental impact. 

Starting from scratch: an American tale 

Speaker: Ben Wiehe (US Science Festival Alliance) 

Drawing on years of experience in the US science festival sector, Ben Wiehe provided a relaxed environment to discuss the challenges and thrills of starting and building a festival. Setting the scene as a “science festival agony aunt”, he answered questions from current and budding science festival organisers providing frank, but friendly advice. The main takeaway: science festivals are about the audience’s experience and you must be willing to adapt what you provide to their needs and requirements. There is not one size fits all model. 

The US Science Festival Alliance provides some excellent resources to help new and current organisers, which you can find here.   

Making IMPACTS with diversity 

Speaker: Tamara Poles (University of North Carolina Morehead Planetarium and Science Center) 

Tamara Poles inspired audiences with her IMPACTS project which trains diverse scientists to deliver exciting educational programs and engaging the public in meaningful conversations about the value of STEM. She detailed the importance of targeted recruitment for underrepresented minorities, obtaining strategic partners whose goals align with the project’s, producing opportunities for different types of audience engagement, and providing Continuing Professional Development for those involved in the programme. The session finished with Tamara asking delegates to think about their audiences and who their ideal partners would be if they were to take a similar approach to IMPACTS, which sparked some lively discussions.  

Keeping the show on the road 

Speakers: Mikey Martins (Freedom Festival) and Ivvet Modinou (UK Science Festivals Network/British Science Association) 

Mikey Martins, Artistic Director and Joint CEO of Freedom Festival, shared some truths about the realities he has faced in building and running his festival. We focused on some of the techniques he has learned to ensure he is looking after himself and his mental health in what can be a very busy, tiring and stressful few months in the lead-up to the event. The audience also shared their tips and stories about self-care and building resilience in themselves and their team. People were so enthused by the discussion that it could have run on for much longer; it was great to see people opening up. The session really highlighted the importance of sharing experiences and supporting one another in the festival sector, something which the Network aims to foster.  

Diversifying arts events in science festivals 

Speakers: Laura Fogg-Rogers (UWE Bristol) and Dane Comerford (IF Oxford) 

Dane Comerford, Director of IF Oxford, recently embarked on coordinating a performance piece that toured many festivals in the Network. Here, in conversation with Laura Fogg-Rogers, he discussed his experiences and the distinct difficulties both science and art have in engaging the public. The take home message was that for science and art crossovers to work, they should be well thought through.  

Involving young voices 

Speakers: Stephanie Bryan (University of Central Lancashire/Lancashire Science Festival), Judith White (Step Up To Serve) and Lucy Aur (Step Up To Serve) 

Chair: Anna Woolman (UK Science Festivals Network/British Science Association) 

There has been increasing focus on involving young people in organisation’s processes, which has gone further than focus groups. Anna Woolman introduced the panel, emphasising the importance of having a youth voice in programming, especially if you want long-term engagement with them. The panel explored a range of ways to achieve this: 

  • Stephanie Bryan detailed Lancashire Science Festival’s recent project with Blackburn Youth Zone where PhD researchers were partnered with 11-14-year olds to produce science communication activities for younger children in the youth club. This resulted in not only the young people taking ownership of the project, but also provided the PhD students with a different perspective on how they communicate with the public.  
  • Judith White explored the #iwill campaign and how it’s aiming to make meaningful social action a part of life for all 10-20-year olds by 2020. She emphasised how youth social action creates a “double benefit”: a social impact and improvement in well-being amongst participants. They have learnt several lessons so far when working with young people, such as: fear prevents progress, adults make assumptions and that everyone needs to be on board for a project to work.  
  • Lucy Aur, a young ambassador for Step Up To Serve and the #iwill campaign provided some valuable insights into youth voice. She implored the audience to consider young people as an asset to your organisation, emphasising how important it is to trust them. She suggested that a big factor in encouraging youth involvement to give them peer role models, so they can see people like them and/or their friends taking part. This is important to consider when developing programmes that involve young people at their core.  

A key take home from this session, however, was that you should stay well clear of tokenism/exploitation of young people (e.g. using them as cheap labour). This is ultimately harmful for both the organisation and the young people involved.   

This Girl Can  

Speaker: Kate Dale (Sport England) 

Kate Dale closed the day with an inspirational talk about the This Girl Can campaign, which she managed. Not only did the subject matter of getting more women involved with sport evoke a lot of passion amongst the audience, but it also highlighted the similar difficulties faced of getting ‘unengaged’ audiences involved with science. Delegates left the session enthused to see how learnings from the campaign, such as ways to involve those from otherwise ‘unengaged’ communities, could inform the science engagement sector. 

We were excited to see so many discussions resulting from the UKSFN18 sessions and want to thank everyone for attending and contributing.  

A key focal point of this year’s conference was diversity, from race to gender and age. It is something that is increasingly talked about across the cultural sector. In science engagement, we’re in a position to stop simply paying lip service to it and start making changes. This is something that was key in the conference; the relevant sessions provided practical advice for improving diversity within programmes. If you are interested to see the work that the British Science Association, who manages the UKSFN, is doing in this area you can find out more here 

If you are interested in proposing a session for UKSFN19, we will be putting out a call for proposals mid-2019. In the meantime, please get in touch if you would like to discuss anything at  

Innovating by design: the first steps

By Savita Willmott, Chief Executive of the Natural History Consortium and one of the participants in the UK Science Festivals Network / Design Council project, “Innovating by design”.

How can design thinking help science festivals to improve their programme and reach under-served audiences? This was the challenge that was presented to us from the UK Science Festivals Network, and we jumped at the chance to join a national cohort of festival directors to think differently about our curation.

Those of us who run science festivals tend to feel pretty passionate about the format. Personally, I love the opportunity of a festival to distribute itself across a city or neighbourhood, take over well-loved community spaces and create new pop-up ones, and spark an exploration of wonder and discovery over a set time period. Science festivals bring researchers, audiences and organisations out of their buildings, out from behind their lab benches or desks, out of their homes and regular routines, all to come together in a ‘third space’. Science festivals create memorable moments, are a test-bed for trying new methods of science engagement, and incubators for “learning fast, failing fast” by many researchers to dip their toes into public engagement. The media loves science festivals and the visual spectacles, artistic content, and fundamental debates about the issues touching all of our lives.


Those of us who run festivals also tend to feel passionately about reaching beyond our usual audiences. We know that we are part of the ecosystem of a city, and working within the ‘usual patterns’ of our audiences, even systemic inequalities, or access to spaces. We worry about elitism of science, we spend months on programming, we think deeply about which events are free and which are open access. We carefully craft our marketing, messaging and PR to be as inclusive as possible. We balance all of this with trying to push the boundaries of our format, working as usual with minimal resources, constantly fundraising and usually begging favours in all directions.

Science festivals are trying to reach beyond traditional audiences

The next stage for science festivals, to make some real progress on reaching new audiences, is not more strategies, more committees, policy documents and ‘inclusion training’. It’s not about festivals teams working harder, it’s about working differently. Thinking differently.

We’re halfway through our workshops with our Design Council, and we’re already thinking differently about our 2019 programmes. The start of the project has helped us reflect on some of the most fundamental questions behind our festival. What problem are we trying to solve with this event? How can we better understand our audience, what they want, and how they experience our event?

Our project is focusing on Bath, and is unique in the cohort. We’re taking the extra step of creating a partnership between Bristol Festival of Nature and Bath Taps into Science. We’ve created a big, bold mission – to work together to raise the levels of science and environment capital across all wards of the city. It’s a “big hairy audacious goal”, and it’s absolutely the right one.

We couldn’t describe design thinking when we started our project (creating interesting chairs?!). We’re still not sure you should test us on it, but we do know that we are going to have a very different product in 2019: a strategic alliance between two science festivals that has the people of Bath at their heart.

Bath Taps into Science is 9-16 March, 2019. Bath Festival of Nature is 1-9 June, 2019. Do join us.

UK Science Festivals Network conference 2018 programme goes live!

We’re excited to announce that the full programme for #UKSFN18 is live. Don’t forget to book your tickets and join us at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea on the 21 November to discuss all things science festivals and events. This year we’re excited to bring together a diverse collection of inspiring speakers from different sectors in the UK and beyond.  

Click here for tickets and more information  



The changing face of festivals  

With over 45 festivals in the UKSFN, it’s been a busy 2018 with activity throughout the country. But what are we doing as a sector to ensure we’re reacting to audience needs and staying relevant in a changing landscape? We’ve gathered voices from across the sector to discuss how we continue to innovate and grow science festivals in the UK and beyond, tackling important challenges such as funding, diversity and content development. 


Algorithmic bias and race 

Festivals can’t happen without modern, dynamic content – and artificial intelligence (AI) is the topic of the day. This talk will unpack research done by Alexander Fefegha on racial and gender bias in AI products and systems. Alex will take us through a case study concerned with algorithmic bias in software used in law, giving a different perspective on how AI may be doubling down on existing social injustices. 


Innovating by design  

The Design Council is an independent, enterprising charity and the government’s advisor on design. It is recognised as a leading authority on the use of strategic design as a tool to tackle major societal challenges, drive economic growth and innovation, and improve the quality of the built environment. Join Ellie Runcie, their Director of Growth and Innovation, as she shares how organisations can use design as a framework for innovation and how they are working with the UKSFN to do just that. 


Celebrating anniversaries of scientific achievements 

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Such missions have a profound effect on popular culture, inspiring stories of space exploration which surpass ‘science fiction’ and become reality. Join Jaclyn Bell from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres to explore potential avenues for your 2019 festivals and find out how they’re working with partners to collate inspiring events around the country. 


Thinking differently about evaluation and impact 

We can sometimes hit a rut when evaluating events and communicating our impact. Savita Willmott will look at provocative new ways of capturing key metrics and how we can work together to better advocate for festivals and events. We’ll borrow creative ideas from other sectors and have a frank discussion about how much time, energy and resource we really put into this vital part of the process.


Starting from scratch: an American tale 

In less than a decade, the US Science Festivals Alliance has supported many new festivals. Interested in starting a festival in your area? Are you thinking about how to grow and create permanency in your town? Join Ben Wiehe to hear some of the tricks that have worked across the pond. 


Making IMPACTS with diversity 

We’re delighted to welcome the University of North Carolina’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Centre Community Engagement Specialist, Tamara Poles. In this session, she will explore how their science communication program, IMPACTS, is helping the North Carolina Science Festival become more diverse and engaging for the public.   


Keeping the show on the road 

Freedom Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. It carved out a niche as the leading arts festival in Yorkshire, but it’s not always been an easy journey. Join artistic director and CEO Mikey Martins for an honest conversation about the highs, lows and challenges of running a festival; everything from funding and content curation, through to career progression and resilience. 


Diversifying arts events in science festivals 

Are you keen to experiment with off-the-shelf or bespoke productions, but unsure where to start? Join this panel, chaired by Dane Comerford, to explore parallels between presenting one-off or touring commissions and something from the festival circuit. With examples of hosting performances on mental health to zoology or solar physics, gain insight into how small-scale theatre and dance can enhance your events.


Involving young voices 

You may have wild and wonderful ideas of what ‘youths’ want to experience at an event, but do you really know what they’re itching for? One solution is to involve them in the process, from decision making to developing content and shaping the programme. But is it easier said than done? Hear from people in the sector and beyond who successfully collaborated with young people, ensuring their voices enabled action and impact.  


This Girl Can 

Sport can often have the same barriers as science: time, accessibility, confidence. What can we learn from the successes of Sport England’s viral This Girl Can campaign, which masterminded national engagement for women in sport? Join Kate Dale from Sport England as she shares the research they undertook which led to the high-impact and effective programme. 



Please note this is subject to change.  

9.30  Registration + coffee 
10.15  Welcome session     
10.30  The changing face of festivals     
11.30  Algorithmic bias and race     
12.00  Lunch  


Science events showcase  

13.15  Innovating by design    Celebrating anniversaries of scientific achievements 
14.15  Thinking differently about evaluation and impact  Starting from scratch: an American tale  Making IMPACTS with diversity 
15.15  Tea break 
15.45  Keeping the show on the road  Integrating arts within science festivals  Involving young voices 
16.45  This Girl Can     
17.15  Drinks reception 


Will you be arriving on the 20 November? 

In the evening, join us for an exclusive, free showing of The Most Unknown, an epic documentary film that sends nine scientists to extraordinary parts of the world to uncover unexpected answers to some of humanity’s biggest questions.  

VenueCinema & Co.  

Timings: Film starts at 19.00  

Tickets: Free, booking required. More details on how to book coming soon.

In the meantime you can watch the trailer. 


See you in Swansea! 



Questions? Contact 


Do science festivals have a diversity problem?

By Anna Woolman, Engagement Officer, British Science Association

In recent years, there has been increasing focus on understanding the backgrounds of audiences engaging with science communication activities, like science festivals. Research conducted by the UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) has shown that many science festival audiences come from relatively affluent backgrounds and they typically engage with a wide variety of “high-culture” pursuits, such as visiting the theatre, museums and galleries. While science festivals appealing to such audiences is not inherently bad and should be celebrated to some degree, we cannot overlook that, in general, science communication endeavours are predominantly serving those who arguably need the outreach less.

It’s our responsibility as public engagement practitioners to challenge the status-quo and endeavour to give everyone, regardless of background, the opportunity to access and enjoy the range of amazing and inspiring projects, activities and events that we produce. It’s become apparent that allowing people the ‘permission’ to take part requires more than having an ‘open door’ or ‘breaking down barriers approach, where it’s stated that no-one is discriminated against. The UKSFN, working with partners like UK Research and Innovation and the Wellcome Trust, are trialling new approaches to programming and co-creation, but we know more needs to be done.

Science festivals are uniquely placed in their local areas. They provide opportunities for people to informally engage with and explore the spectrum of science and the arts. However, evidence from the most recent British Science Association “Where is Science Communication now?” report suggests those facilitating science communication activities are far from representative of the UK population, and thus potential audiences.

If a biased trend translates into the science festival sector, this is problematic. Not only because of the issue of audiences not feeling as science is ‘for them’ if they don’t see people like them working in it, but also because having a diverse workforce helps us better understand and meet the needs of diverse audience groups, thus providing the ability to create programmes that improve representation amongst audiences.

To understand the diversity of the science festival workforce and identify potential areas for improvement, the UKSFN piloted a survey on the diversity of their Network in early 2018. The Network is made up of science festival volunteers and employees involved in enabling and supporting the delivery of UK science festivals.

There were some stand out results from the survey. It found that there were notable differences between employees and volunteers, especially in:​

  • Gender – volunteers were more similar to UK population, but if employees are taken into account then the overall figure is highly skewed towards women (72%)​
  • Age – volunteers are either 16-20 or 61-65, whereas employees are between 21-40 ​(note: this could not be directly compared to UK population)
  • Ethnicity – volunteers are more representative of UK population than employees ​

There were also similarities between employees and volunteers:​

  • Education – both were more highly educated than the UK population ​
  • Free school meals (used as a proxy for socio-economic background) – most were not eligible for free school meals ​
  • Disability – most did not have a long standing mental or physical disability – 5% said they did, compared to 18% of UK population​
  • Sexual orientation - more people identified as bisexual and less as heterosexual than UK population​

Evidently, the pilot survey revealed divides between the backgrounds of the sector’s workforce and the UK population. Although it should be noted that the overall sample size was small (~124), so results should be taken with caution, the overall picture highlights need for further work in this area and for a further uptake of survey completion. Following a positive general consensus from Network members, the piloted survey will be rolled out as a membership requirement in 2019.

Are you interested in issues surrounding diversity in the science festival and wider engagement sector? We will be discussing it and more at the upcoming UKSFN conference in Swansea on the 21 November. Tickets are on sale now and you can get them here.

Do you have any questions or comments about this blog? If so, please get in touch with us at

UK science festivals: innovating by design

By Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement, British Science Association

Science festivals and underserved audiences

Festivals are a powerful way of engaging the public with health, the human condition and science. For visitors, they get an opportunity to come face-to-face with science and research on their own terms, increasing their interest and confidence. From busking and science cafes to family shows and workshops, the diversity of formats available is a strength that makes the UK a global leader in festival programming. However, despite the desire to welcome new audiences, this has had varying success and is something that science festival organisers are constantly trying to improve.

The UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN), supported by conversations with staff at The Wellcome Trust, believe that user-centred design could allow festival organisers and programmers to go one step further and really embed audiences at the heart of their events.

The science festival community often stems from the science communication sector, which is driven by engaging the public with scientific research. Scientific research forms the starting point for how science festivals are programmed; focusing on cutting-edge research and new technologies, but often reaching audiences who are already engaged in science.

There is also a strong drive within the science festival community to reach under-served audiences, particularly those with ‘low science capital’. However, as festival organisers’ time is precious, professional development can take a backseat against more pressing demands – like securing event funding, negotiating with partners or organising staff and volunteers. If we’re going to create more user-centred events, we need to find a sustainable way of stepping back, so we can understand more about our audience’s motivations and make-up.

Funding and limited resources are often a barrier to effect change – so the UKSFN are partnering with the Design Council to work with festivals to develop their skills in user-centred design, which they can embed into their practice going forward.

Design Council is a pioneer of user-centred research and design practices. They have a strong track record in delivering innovation programmes to support organisations in the public, third and private sectors, enabling them to unlock new value and deliver transformational results that boost productivity and competitiveness, which in turn improves lives. Design Council has developed a Framework for Innovation called the Double Diamond, which is based on their track record in delivering support programmes at scale across the public and private sectors over a 20-year period.

By helping science festivals develop the skills needed to create user-centred programming, we will hopefully see science festivals becoming more effective at engaging the audiences they want to reach.  

The Science Festival community are open to new ways of working and new formats for engagement – many of which take methodologies from the arts and other creative industries when curating their festival.

Given the resource constraints within the festival community, we are excited to be supported by the Wellcome Trust to pilot a new approach to working; supporting festivals to experiment, learn, build capacity and add new methodologies to their festival programming toolbox.

To find out more about the Design Council, go to their website:

Or to read more about The Wellcome Trust, click here:

To read our strategy and discover more about why we’re undertaking this type of work, read the British Science Associaton’s blog about how we’re revolutionising people’s relationship with science: