Dr Simon Gage: Edinburgh Napier University, 27 September 2012

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Back in September we welcomed Dr Simon Gage to Edinburgh Napier University, part of a rolling series of public talks by the directors of Edinburgh’s foremost festivals and other guest speakers. Simon heads up the Edinburgh International Science Festival, which has enjoyed a very successful 2012 with some innovative new events and the second instalment of their Abu Dhabi takeover. I remember the date as it was my birthday, but I’m only now making the time to post my notes from the evening. They might be a little opaque without having been there to set them in some kind of context, so any questions in the comments will be answered as best I can.
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‘Geek chic’ as a new cultural phenomenon and the role science festivals play in making it so
Dr Simon Gage

Science in popular culture
  • Aspects of science that have made their way into popular culture
  • Methods and media: broadcast, publishing, museums, hands-on science centres and festivals
  • On science centres: engagement is generally between human and machine, while human to human is more engaging
  • Science events: stealing from other performances ??? theatre, etc. Kids performing fake operations with real kit. Dad dancing… based on testosterone levels?! Coffee event: what’s the science behind the drink?
  • Festivals: good sci festivals have allowed those with enthusiasm for science to find an audience that otherwise they couldn’t reach
  • Examples: Genoa learnt from Edinburgh; Abu Dhabi using Edinburgh, aimed at children, with the same activities being toured to different places; New York (‘World Science Festival’) commissioning major artistic works based on science, performed on Broadway
  • Beyond science festivals: Uncaged Monkeys is mainstream; Secret Cinema; Guerilla Science popping up at other festivals… science outside the ghetto
  • iPhone apps: Dream:On, from Richard Wiseman, getting social neurology into the public eye, finding a massive sample for research
  • Things are changing: science is reaching out and is being done professionally

  • What’s driving the change?
  • Very few trying to do it for money…
  • …but there are various stakeholders who want to see it happen:
  • Economic impact: councils, etc. want to attract investment in science: knowledge based economies, with talented people attracted to your location. Notes that the richer a country gets the less likely its population is to want to work in science and technology. There’s a role for festivals in providing opportunities for kids to experience science and find their vocations
  • Recruit young talent
  • Engage with public: governments aware that they need to get public support for spending on science, so they spend a lot of effort explaining what they do to try and win over the public. Note recent controversies that have seen the public oppose science
  • Educational desire: formal and informal
  • Scientists keen to share and find and audience: see Richard Wiseman at Science Festival; Richard Dawkins wanting to get his message out
  • Each festival has its own drivers for making them happen: Fringe, Tattoo, etc.
    • The market?
    • These audiences have to be created and found ??? they’re not there to be pinched from others
    • Once you’ve found an audience you can put stuff in front of them in new ways
    • Bring someone else’s audience to you: bring in stars, the BBC, existing brands

    • Questions:
    • Identifies a local, not national audience: stakeholders want to attract a local audience, although tourism is on the horizon
    • Abu Dhabi: benefits Edinburgh through money, opportunities to see talent around the world, a need to sharpen your game to meet high expectations
    • Reaching out to new industries: forging links to new stakeholder groups from the arts to new university departments
    • Science take up: anecdotal evidence that science festivals increase take up of academic courses… but very tough to provide evidence on a firmer basis

    Making a festival
    • The growth of science communication as a recognised profession
    • Notes that there’s a learning process: to get from a homespun event to something that looks great
    • Go the extra mile to produce something wonderful and it becomes truly engaging and magical
    • Recipe: science, communication, training, working together
    • The lack of functioning markets in this content: other cultural areas have an established market, but it’s hard to see where this is for science festivals; without the market the industry is lacking, a market will speed up the trading of ideas, content, performers and buyers
    • Some events can be pretty techie, but if you know your audience and you can put them in the right environment you can be ambitious
    • Competition: pitching yourselves against others in the same quadrant: high participation + high impact
    • Work with
      your competitors: the zoo, theatre companies, shopping malls, etc.
    • Edinburgh: very competitive, so you gotta be good to survive in this city; but you can learn from the other festivals; the city helps set Edinburgh apart, likewise their work with families

    Future of EISF:
    • International contracts
    • Plans to invest in training teachers
    • Continuing to be good, rather than pushing for growth
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    Image: ‘2010.0807 Spirit of the Wild’  |  flickr.com/photos/27751389@N07/4468275509/