SciComm in the UK: report on VA’s study visit to London



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VA’s Secretary General Cissi Askwall recently joined Communication Directors from 18 Swedish Universities on a trip to London to learn more about the work of organisations involved in science communication. One of them was the British Science Association, a sister organisation to VA.

The British Science Association sees science as a fundamental part of culture and society at large, instead of set apart from it. It essentially seeks to empower people to challenge, enjoy, and influence science, rather than view science as the domain of professionals and experts, and seeks to do this through the types of events that it runs.

BSA organises a number of major initiatives and festivals across the UK, as well as regional and local events through its network of Branches. They also undertake research and policy work.

Support for science festivals

Currently, there are 22 science festivals run each year in the UK, plus 14 other cultural festivals that have science strands. The BSA has initiated a network for science festival organisers through which they can share experiences and learn from one another, which was particularly interesting to hear about in light of the ForskarFredag network of European Researchers’ Night organisers that VA supports. The BSA network also provides an effective mechanism for gathering hard facts and statistics that can be used for evaluation purposes and to demonstrate impact.

The British Science Festival is a long-running event that is run each September in a different UK city and is focused on connecting tens of thousands of people with scientists, engineers, technologists and social scientists to engage in open discussion and learn more about developments affecting culture and society. In 2017 it will be hosted in Brighton together with the Universities of Sussex and Brighton.

British Science Week, held each March, is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths and is much more of a grassroots initiative with over 5,000 events organised by lots of different kinds of local organisers across the UK. The BSA provides support in the form of a common website, marketing materials and seed grants. Activities include a number of citizen science projects. The 2017 one will involve monitoring penguins in over 100 sites in partnership with Zooniverse.

The audience map

The organisation has also developed an interesting new model for thinking about and segmenting their audiences. Event attendees are invited to place themselves on a spectrum ranging from ‘disinterested’, ‘interested’ right up to ‘engaged’ and ‘expert’. The aim is to help people move ‘up the scale’ to the point where they might become science enthusiasts, engaged consumers and critical friends. Currently, BSA’s audiences are roughly split between 25% disinterested, 50% engaged and 25% expert.

Forums for debate

The BSA is particularly keen to encourage debate around new technology developments and through its Future debates series seeks to find out what people think of issues that could potentially have a significant impact on society. Topics have included genome data privacy and the development of robots and autonomous systems.

A new initiative is the Huxley Summit, a high profile invitation-only event for 200 leaders from business, the arts and science to discuss the impact of science on society and the world and bring non-scientists into the decision-making structures of science. The first one was held last November on “Trust in the 21st century” and TED-talk style videos are being produced for each of the speakers.

BSA also runs a successful Media Fellowships scheme providing practicing scientists and engineers with the opportunity to spend between two to six weeks working at a major UK media outlet, such as the BBC or national newspapers, to learn more about how the media operates and reports on science.

The CREST Awards scheme is a well-established programme for young people that offers STEM activities for 5 to 19 year olds to be run in schools, clubs, youth groups or at home.

BSA is a charity, founded in 1831 with the mission ‘to support, grow and diversify the community of people interested and involved in science; and to strengthen their influence over science’s direction and place in society’. It is funded by a mix of grants, sponsorship and donations, with around half of its funding coming from the UK Government. It also has a two-tiered membership scheme consisting of Members and Friends.

The Science Media Centre

The Swedish group also visited the Science Media Centre, an independent non-profit organisation that works directly with UK national news journalists to provide them with accurate evidence-based information about science and immediate access to scientific experts. The group was especially inspired by the idea of a dedicated service that could respond swiftly to news stories, particularly important in the era of fake news. Similar to VA’s media seminars for researchers, the Science Media Centre also runs ‘introduction to the news media’ events.

The Wellcome Trust

The group also met staff from the Wellcome Trust, an independent charitable foundation with a global reach that ‘supports scientists and researchers, takes on big problems, and sparks debate’. Public engagement is an important part of what they do and any projects that receive money from the trust must include public engagement activity.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)

The second day was spent at the Houses of Parliament, where they were given a tour of the building and met with the POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) team. POST runs a science advisory service for politicians to keep them informed about current and emerging science and technology issues and their policy implications, which it achieves through written briefings (known as “POSTnotes”), longer reports, seminars and podcasts.

“The whole trip was extremely interesting and useful, and gave plenty of ideas that will inform and inspire VA’s work in Sweden,” said Cissi. Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement at BSA, has also accepted an invitation to come to Stockholm in March to speak at the kick-off meeting for this year’s ForskarFredag organisers.

“It was also a valuable opportunity for me to get to know the Swedish Communications Directors better, learn about their challenges and how VA can better support them,” added Cissi.

For more information about the Science Media Centre and POST, also read a previous VA article, which looks at initiatives in the UK and Sweden that work to improve understanding and contact between researchers and policymakers.

Public & Science Sweden

Areas of interest


Helen Garrison

[email protected]

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