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You say Science Festival, I say Science Festivaaal

Title: “Science Festival” may not mean what we think it means: an analysis of how researchers and practitioners use this term

Author(s) and Year: Ramsey and Boyette, 2021


TL;DR: This research serves as a reminder that science festivals are arranged in a variety of formats. If we want to compare them in research or apply practical lessons, we must distinguish the types of science festivals and give context to our evaluations.

Why I chose this paper: I have been fortunate to attend and volunteer at many science festivals over the last couple of years. Having seen the different types of engagement and formats firsthand, I thought it was interesting to see an article that delved into the details and analyzed how science festivals were referred to in research.


What comes to mind when you think of “science festivals”? For me, I picture the last science festival I went to. The street is filled with people on a rare sunny weekend in the UK. A scientist high up on stilts is calling down to a child using a cup attached to a string. Street artists are painting giant murals to share the beauty of the natural world. Families are at tables extracting DNA from strawberries and building earthquake-proof structures out of lollipop sticks. There’s a queue for the ice cream van. A folk band playing on a stage provides the live soundtrack to this vibrant scene.

A crowd watching a live band with guitarists, saxophonist, singers and a drummer on stage. They are playing at The Great Exhibition Road Festival, the name of which is emblazoned on a pink banner above them.
A crowd watching a live band play at The Great Exhibition Road Festival.

This is The Great Exhibition Road Festival, a free annual celebration of science and the arts in London, UK, and online. The Festival is a collaboration between cultural and research institutions based in and around London’s Exhibition Road, including Imperial College London, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the V&A, Japan House London and the Royal Albert Hall. Students, PhD researchers, scientists and outreach practitioners run activities across the weekend to engage audiences with science, music, and art.

A university student has a colorful model of a spine on the table and is pointing out vertebrae to a young girl and her mother.
A university student explains details of the spine to participants at The Great Exhibition Road Festival.

But for you, maybe the science festival you think of, or want to run, doesn’t have a live band, food trucks, 18 collaborative partners, and 50,000 visitors!

The term science festival can mean different things to different people. It is important we distinguish between festivals and describe them so we can appropriately apply the practical lessons learnt to improve future activities.

The Details

Science festivals have become a popular medium for engaging public audiences. They have also become an increasingly popular topic of academic research with citations increasing exponentially since the early 1990s.

Line graph showing an exponential upward trend. Starting in 1990, the number of citations for research papers that used the term "science festival" was almost zero, but by 2020 the number of cumulative citations has risen to over 800. This indicates how science festivals have become more prominent in both literature and the real world.
Figure 1: Cumulative number of scholarly publications containing “science festival”. X-axis is Year, Y-axis is cumulative number of citations. (Ramsey and Boyette, 2021)

Researchers have raised concerns that science festivals do not always achieve their goals of engaging new or diverse audiences - often tending to appeal to visitors who are “already engaged” with science and/or from well-educated, middle-class families.

In order to address these concerns with practical evidence-based solutions and to improve on positive engagement aspects of festivals, we must understand the different structures of festivals.

So Ramsey and Boyette investigated the term “science festival”. In the research literature, they identified 24 articles and extracted how the festivals were described in terms of size, duration, geographic reach, theming, and programming. Similar details were extracted from the websites, social media and annual reports of the 55 member festivals of the Science Festival Alliance to create a ‘snapshot’ of the rapidly evolving science festival community.

A female scientist wearing a t-shirt with Mr Men style illustrations of molecules points to a poster about Glycobiology. She is explaining her research to a father and daughter.
A scientist explains their research to the audience at The Great Exhibition Road Festival.

The Results

In research literature, Ramsey and Boyette found a troubling trend. Researchers were wildly inconsistent in how they described science festivals in their writing. In nine of the 24 articles, researchers either relied on a general description of science festivals or provided no description at all. In the remaining articles, researchers frequently omitted important features of science festivals - size, duration, geographic reach, theming, and programming. Only three of the 24 articles described all of these features. Not only does this make it difficult for future researchers to replicate or compare results, it causes confusion for festival organizers trying to implement research findings to their type of event.

Delving into science festival websites, Ramsey and Boyette noted a huge variability in the size, duration, geographic reach, theming, and programming of events. Attendance numbers listed online ranged between 1,000 and 365,000 visitors and may have depended on the festival running over a single day, multiple days, weeks or months. Whilst most science festivals focussed their efforts on a specific metropolitan area, some were statewide or nationwide. There were a whole variety of formats presented by science festivals to engage visitors, e.g. public talks, tours, workshops, live shows, and interactive activities. Larger festivals generally utilized many of these formats, while smaller festivals only featured events in one or two formats, the choice of which depended on the specific audience they were trying to appeal to.

Despite all these differences, Ramsey and Boyette found some common ground in the goals, hands-on methods and collaborations of festivals. The purpose of science festivals often extended beyond the mere celebration of science in two important ways: by increasing public awareness of science in our everyday lives and by inspiring children to pursue careers in science. Festival organizers heavily prioritized the interactive or hands-on nature of their visitor experiences. Collaborations between informal science institutions, universities, businesses, community groups, and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) organizations were often fundamental to the success of science festivals.

Ramsey and Boyette note that future research can incorporate more festivals than the 55 festivals analyzed in this paper and go global, as all but one of the festivals identified in this analysis are located in the United States. Further study and collaboration between researchers and engagement practitioners is needed to evaluate festival impacts and goals.

An artist paints a vibrant picture of a fox looking through leaves and flowers. Families are watching her paint as they walk along Exhibition Road in London.
An invited artist paints street art inspired by nature at The Great Exhibition Road Festival.

The Takeaways

Science festivals are incredible opportunities to engage audiences with science in creative ways.

So when you think of “science festivals”, think of their extraordinary diversity, from the grand Great Exhibition Road Festivals to the intimate Pint of Sciences. Think of the variety of sizes, locations, activities, themes and more. Recognize the differences in your experiences of festivals and scicomm events. When you share your evaluations of what worked and what didn’t, it must come with context.

Only then can we go out and best apply the lessons learned to future festivals and tailor our activities to the diverse audiences we want and need to engage with.

Edited by Sarah Ferguson and Niveen Abi Ghannam

Cover image credit: [Sam Ridgeway - The Great Exhibition Road Festival]

All featured photographs courtesy of Sam Ridgeway


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