Festival Lessons

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Science  28 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6174, pp. 949
DOI: 10.1126/science.1252251

For a university that is over 800 years old, 20th anniversaries are rather modest. Yet in March, the University of Cambridge will reflect on 20 years of organizing the Cambridge Science Festival in the United Kingdom. During this year's event, topics ranging from string theory to sustainability will be examined through talks, demonstrations, debates, theatre, music, exhibitions, and more. Hundreds of researchers and students will participate, and around 30,000 people are expected to attend. Over the past two decades, the festival has imparted many general lessons about how to successfully make science “public” and why this endeavor is important not only for the audience but for the research enterprise itself.


In 1994, the idea of a festival to communicate science to the public was still in its infancy in the United Kingdom. The modern concept of such a program had come about only a few years earlier in Edinburgh, with the idea that science could be packaged in a format from the arts. The first Cambridge Science Festival was attended by several hundred people, with a less ambitious scope and more dependence on straightforward public lectures. Since then, there has been growing recognition of the benefits of public engagement for researchers, and finding effective ways to showcase science and technology is now a priority. Research funders and universities in many nations are increasingly embedding requirements for public engagement within their funding programs and career advancement schemes, acknowledging the importance of making visible the processes of and outputs from research. The creative scaffold of most science festivals reflects this push to engage.

Today, there are several hundred festivals every year that enable millions of people worldwide to interact with those working in science. As part of the many science-in-society activities now taking place, festivals aim to nurture scientific literacy among attendees of all ages, to enthuse them with the wonder and excitement that scientists feel, and to help students and researchers appreciate how public engagement can help them view their own work in both interdisciplinary and social contexts. The core content of the Cambridge Festival is science and technology, but perspectives are drawn in from other fields too, and the presentation is influenced by the world of the arts. This weaving together of science and culture to communicate the relevance of science to everyday life seems to lie behind the growing international popularity of such festivals.


The Cambridge Festival has the advantage of pulling perspectives from the university's own researchers in social sciences, arts, and humanities together with those in the sciences and technology. The involvement of a university can also help to attract the participation of many partners beyond its own campus. In turn, a festival can make a university's research world less mysterious. The Cambridge Festival enables attendees to come into intimate contact with the people and setting of science at the University of Cambridge and to become part of discussions that have personal and global dimensions—from climate change and health to technologies that are part of their everyday lives.

Our experience has been that participants in science festivals are as diverse as the efforts that go into reaching out to them. Certainly, online dissemination is providing the University of Cambridge and the Festival with opportunities to reach an even wider audience. But successful outreach requires nurturing relationships with local communities, not only to support a yearly festival but also to maintain year-round public engagement activities. As such, science festivals such as the one in Cambridge have become central to many networks for informal science learning in the United Kingdom; this is perhaps the greatest lesson learned from organizing the Cambridge Festival. An honest dialogue between science and society comes through real experiences of engagement, and more than just once a year.

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