Written evidence submitted by the British Science Association on behalf of UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) members

 

Submission to Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport inquiry on ‘Impact of COVID-19 on DCMS sectors’

Executive summary

 

  1. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for effective science communication and the value of community cohesion. By bringing local audiences, researchers and cultural organisations together, science festivals are in the ideal position to fill this niche.

 

  1. Science festivals are a key cultural offering in many UK towns and cities annually. Over 40 UK-based science festivals are a member of the UK Science Festivals Network.

 

  1. In 2019, members of the Network had over one million face-to-face interactions with members of the public and provided 11,652 researchers, scientists and presenters opportunities to share their work with audiences across 5,371 events and activities. The sector employed 108 full-time equivalent staff and supported 5,245 volunteers.

 

  1. Through employment, volunteering and content curation science festivals provide adult enrichment opportunities and raise aspirations for children and audiences who have not traditionally seen science as ‘for them’.

 

  1. Over half of the members of the UK Science Festivals Network responded to a survey regarding the impact of COVID-19, key figures included:

 

    1. 63% of UK Science Festivals Network members had to cancel their 2020 festivals that were set to take place from March onwards;

 

    1. 55% of UK Science Festivals Network members have lost a proportion of, or all, their 2020 income;

 

    1. UK Science Festivals Network members are concerned about the clarity of Government advice for event organisers and audiences about hosting and attending physical events upon the easing of lockdown measures.

 

  1. The UK Science Festivals Network requests a joined-up approach from funding bodies, who have historically supported science engagement practitioners and related cultural offerings, to provide financial support for them to sustain and innovate to best serve their communities in the wake of COVID-19.

 

  1. The cultural sector is both supported by DCMS and other Government departments and funding agencies, such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The UK Science Festivals Network calls on DCMS to work with other Government departments and agencies to ensure cultural organisations that receive such interdepartmental Government funding continues.

 

About the UK Science Festivals Network

 

  1. The UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) unites, celebrates and develops science festivals in the UK. Its membership is made up of over 40 UK-based science festivals that take place throughout the year (Appendix A). The UKSFN is managed by the British Science Association (BSA).

 

  1. In 2019, members of the Network had over one million face-to-face interactions with members of the public and provided 11,652 researchers, scientists and presenters opportunities to share their work with audiences across 5,371 events and activities. This was all made possible through the work of 108 full-time equivalent staff and 5,245 volunteers.

 

  1. There is a huge diversity of science festivals in the Network. Those who organise them include institutions, volunteers, independent businesses, community interest companies and charities (Appendix A). Organisers provide excellent value for money whilst delivering high quality programming for their local communities; Out of 22 science festivals that the Network surveyed in 2020, 60% run on between £10,000 - £200,000 per year.

 

The value and impact of science festivals

 

  1. The UK is a leader in organising and running science festivals, which sit within a rich heritage of science communication and engagement.

 

  1. In recent years, there has been a collective push from organisers towards expanding our audience reach to those which are underrepresented in science engagement audience pools[1] and the wider UK ‘high-cultural’ sphere[2]. This has included those from lower socioeconomic and Ethnic Minority backgrounds[3].

 

  1. Support from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Wellcome Trust has enabled the sector to reflect on and develop their approaches to engaging such audiences. Members are keen to develop and reach audiences outside of their usual remit, demonstrating the passion and ambition in the sector to learn and develop.

 

  1. In 2019, UKSFN members provided 5,245 volunteering opportunities for people in their local communities and beyond. The Network’s annual workforce survey demonstrated that for these people, science festivals provide a valuable opportunity for them to gain skills, contribute to their local community and do something they enjoy[4]. In 2019, these science festivals also employed 108 full-time equivalent staff. Not only does this reinforce the great value for money that science festivals provide, but it also demonstrates the valuable voluntary and employment opportunities they offer.

 

  1. Live events, such as festivals, are a particularly important format for engagement with science. Unlike with other cultural activities such as music, visual arts and theatre, there are few fixed venues in UK towns and cities for audiences to experience science in relatable ways. As such, the local science festival is a staple in the events calendar and a vital cultural offering[5].

 

  1. Over many years, festival organisers have fostered strong connections with their local audiences, researchers and cultural organisations meaning they have a unique ability to bring science into the cultural sphere. In bringing these groups together, they provide an opportunity for scientists and the public to be levelled. This not only builds audience’s confidence with science, but also develops researchers public engagement skills and understanding of the public’s views and needs.

 

  1. In the wake of COVID-19, the importance of effective, relevant science communication has never been greater. Festivals will serve as an important medium for this to happen.  

 

  1. COVID-19 has significantly impacted the live events sector. Despite digital content being an important avenue to consider in the short-term, there is a 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[6].

 

  1. Recent years have seen many science festivals move towards a more user-centred approach to their organisation, focussing on their audience’s needs as opposed to, say, institutional goals[7].

 

  1. The pandemic has highlighted the need for effective science communication and the value of community cohesion. Science festivals are in the ideal position to fill this niche and seek to do so6. The sector will no doubt use this as an opportunity to reflect on its role, not only refining how they can engage people in scientific discourse and culture in such uncertain times, but also how they can effectively hear and respond to the needs of local communities, and provide vital support for them going forward.

 

About the British Science Association

 

  1. The British Science Association is a registered charity that works to improve people’s links with science. We have organised live events between scientists and the public since 1831 and in the last couple of decades, have sought to collect and share expertise among the science engagement practitioner community.

 

Monitoring UKSFN members’ response to COVID-19

 

  1. The UKSFN collected its members views on, and responses to, COVID-19 using an online anonymous survey between the 15-24 April 2020. Of the 42 Network members, 22 responded and their views are summarised in this report, along with those from three online members meetings and individual calls with members. Statistics that are included are taken from survey results.

 

What has been the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the sector?

 

  1. Festival cancellations: 63% of UKSFN members had to cancel their 2020 festivals that were set to take place from March onwards due to Government guidance about public events. The remainder are scaling back and/or going online or are unsure about how to proceed.

 

  1. Reduced income: 32% of UKSFN members have lost a proportion of their income, 23% have lost all of it and 18% are uncertain but expect losses. Only 14% remain positive in retaining similar income levels prior to COVID-19.

 

    1. Most UKSFN members’ business models rely heavily on corporate sponsorship, grant funding and ticket sales. For some, funder relationships have not been negatively affected and they report being allowed to roll over funding to 2021 and/or re-purpose funding for resilience. However, many have experienced loss of funding due to corporate sponsors refocusing funds onto business-critical costs, smaller businesses not being able to commit and loss of ticket sales.

 

  1. Staff retention is threatened: 33% of UKSFN members have furloughed their staff on the Coronavirus Government Retention Scheme, 22% have deployed staff to other work and 15% have had to make staff redundant, not renew their contracts and/or stall hiring processes. 30% have not made any changes, but most of these are unsure how long they will be able to retain this for.

 

How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?

 

  1. Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: 33% of UKSFN members have been able to furlough some or all their staff through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, mentioning this has been integral to ‘saving’ the festival in the short-term.

 

  1. DCMS and other Government departments: Most UKSFN members did not receive support from DCMS. Some reported support from, mostly local, Government bodies (such as the Scottish Government and City of Edinburgh and Belfast City councils) who they have existing relationships or funding agreements with.

 

  1. Arms-length bodies: The National Lottery, Arts Council England and UKSFN were explicitly mentioned by some members as providing support relating to grant re-purposing, emergency funding and guidance respectively.

 

  1. Issues with processes and clarity: There are reports that processes of accessing Government support has not been straightforward and advice from DCMS on running events was not initially timely or clear. There are continued widespread concerns about the clarity of advice for event organisers and audiences about hosting and attending physical events upon the easing of lockdown measures.

 

What will the likely long-term impacts of COVID-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?

 

  1. In 2019, members of the Network had over 1 million face-to-face interactions with members of the public and provided 11,652 researchers, scientists and presenters opportunities to share their work with audiences across 5,371 events and activities. The sector employed 108 full-time equivalent staff and supported 5,245 volunteers. COVID-19 will significantly impact these figures at least in 2020 if not beyond.

 

Long term impacts of COVID-19

 

  1. Festival survival threatened: 41% of UKSFN members 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. Ultimately, there is a strong sense of uncertainty.

 

  1. Inability to bring people together face-to-face: Many UKSFN 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.

 

  1. Economic stability threatened: Most UKSFN members’ 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.

 

  1. Shifted public priorities: There are concerns about audience’s bandwidth to engage with cultural events, like science festivals, even after lockdown measures have been lifted. COVID-19 has introduced 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.

 

Support needed

 

  1. Clear and specific guidance: For event organisers on when running physical, face-to-face events can resume and what safety measures are required to run them in a post-COVID-19 world. Similar guidance is needed for audiences to increase their confidence in and ability to attend such events safely.

 

  1. Innovation funding:

 

    1. The sector is rapidly innovating and adapting to adhere to social distancing measures. The Arts Council England emergency fund has supported many in the arts and cultural sector. However, many UKSFN members were not eligible for Arts Council England emergency funding due to their activities not meeting the criteria, such as not being publicly funded or working mostly with artists. UKSFN members are keen to understand if there will be similar Government support for science-related cultural offerings, such as science festivals.

 

    1. There is a clear need for a more joined up approach from funding bodies, who have historically supported science engagement practitioners and related cultural offerings, to provide financial support for them to sustain and innovate - particularly now and in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19. At the time of writing this, there has not been such emergency funding made available.

 

  1. Retention of events staff: Further funding and/or schemes made available to retain events staff. If key staff, who have specific sets of skills to run events, are lost it will take even longer for the sector to recover. As many science festivals rely on freelancers, there has been requests for a review of the freelance support package for such staff that had been let go before this became available. 

 

What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with COVID-19?

 

  1. The UKSFN and its members were quick to adapt: Many festivals cancelled their events or have explored alternative options to engage their audiences whilst respecting social distancing measures. The UKSFN has encouraged members to quickly come together to discuss their experiences, share learnings and set up a working group to workshop alternative ways to engage audiences digitally and physically in the current climate. COVID-19 has demonstrated the resilience of UKSFN members and the strength and potential of collaboration between festivals.

 

  1. More coordinated economic support for science festivals: Funding, support and development opportunities are still needed to trial and implement innovations. Despite science festivals being a key cultural offering, COVID-19 has exposed the need for this to be acknowledged by the science engagement and broader cultural sector with regards to emergency funding opportunities. There has been a stark contrast between the support for arts practitioners from Arts Council England in comparison to that which has been provided to science engagement practitioners from comparable funders.

 

  1. Clearer communication on lockdown and social distancing measures: In the initial stages of the pandemic many organisers were left confused about what measures to take, especially those that were in the process of delivering their festivals in February and March. Looking towards the relaxing of lockdown and social distancing, there is a consensus that messaging from the Government on events needs to be clearer and timelier.

 

How might the sector evolve after COVID-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?

 

  1. There are widespread concerns that the science festival, and wider events, sector will be one of the last to recover. With the future of social distancing and gatherings uncertain, many organisers are left in limbo as to whether they should focus their energies on creating physical and/or digital opportunities for audiences to engage with. The former being where the sector’s knowledge and skills are the strongest.

 

  1. While science festivals are resilient and have adapted in the face of uncertainty during the pandemic, their future is uncertain if funding sources are not found. With support from Government and the corporate sector, many festivals offer free or low-cost opportunities for audiences to engage with science and culture. Yet with many businesses under threat, the stability of this funding model is in doubt. As such, the sector would benefit from a central funding stream that would enable innovation, in both physical and digital spaces, placing local communities at heart. This needs to sit alongside support for continued professional development for practitioners in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19.

 

 

 

Appendix A: UK Science Festivals Network members as of 2020.

 

Festival name

Location

Organised by

Usual time of year (subject to change)

Cardiff Science Festival

Cardiff, Wales

Cardiff Science Festival

February

NI Science Festival

Northern Ireland

NI Science Festival

February

Noël Turner Science Festival

Isle of Wight, England

Winchester Science Centre

February

Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity

Nottingham, England

Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity

February

Oxford Maths Festival

Oxford, England

Oxford Mathematics

February

Science Swindon

Swindon and Wiltshire, England

New Elements

February

SMASH_UK

London and Bradford, England

SMASH_UK C.I.C

February

ATOM Festival of Science & Technology

Abingdon-on-Thames, England

ATOM Festival of Science & Technology

March

Cambridge Science Festival

Cambridge, England

University of Cambridge

March

Leeds Festival of Science

West Yorkshire, England

University of Leeds

March

Rochdale Science Extravaganza

Rochdale, England

Rochdale Science Initiative C.I.C

March

Southampton Science and Engineering Festival

Southampton, England

University of Southampton

March

Wigtown Festival Company: Big Bang

Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

Wigtown Festival Company

March

Edinburgh Science Festival

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Science

April

Festival of Nature

Bristol and Bath, England

The Natural History Consortium

April

Pint of Science

UK-wide

Pint of Science

May

Science Fiction Theatre Festival

London, England

Horatio Productions

May

Bristol Science Film Festival

Bristol, England

Bristol Science Film Festival

June

Cheltenham Science Festival

Cheltenham, England

Cheltenham festivals

June

Glasgow Science Festival

Glasgow, Scotland

Glasgow Science Festival

June

Lancashire Science Festival

Preston, England

University of Central Lancashire

June

Bitesize Science Fest

Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

Bitesize Science Fest

July

BLAST FEST

Birmingham, England

BLAST Fest Ltd

July

bluedot

Cheshire, England

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, University of Manchester

July

Bradford Science Festival

Bradford, England

National Science and Media Museum

July

Imperial Festival

London, England,

Imperial College London

July

Summer Science Exhibition

London, England

The Royal Society

July

Basildon street science

Basildon, England

GhScientific

September

British Science Festival

UK city changes annually

British Science Association

September

Gravity Fields Festival

Grantham, England

South Kesteven District Council

September

Brighton WonderFest

Brighton/Sussex, England

Curiosity Sussex

October

Festival of Social Science

UK-wide

Economic and Social Research Council

October

IF Oxford (Oxford Science and Ideas Festival)

Oxford, England

Oxfordshire Science Festival Ltd

October

Malvern Festival of Innovation

Great Malvern, England

Innovate Malvern CIC

October

Manchester Science Festival

Manchester, England

Science and Industry Museum

October

Midlothian Science Festival

Midlothian, Scotland

Midlothian Science Festival

October

Norwich Science Festival

Norwich, England

The Forum Trust

October

Pentref Gwyddoniaeth a Thechnoleg yr Eisteddfod Genedlaethol

Ceredigion, Wales

Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru/ National Eisteddfod of Wales

October

Peterborough STEM Festival

Peterborough, England

Digital People in Peterborough

October

Sidmouth Science Festival

Sidmouth, England

Sidmouth Science Festival

October

Swansea Science Festival

Swansea, Wales

Swansea University

October

AlgoMech Festival

Sheffield, England

AlgoMech

November

 

 


[1]https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963662517750072

[2]https://warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/finalreport/warwick_commission_final_report.pdf

[3]https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/three-years-of-science-festivals-engaging-new-audiences-with-research

[4]http://sciencefestivals.uk/do-science-festivals-have-a-diversity-problem/

[5]https://theconversation.com/science-festivals-knowledge-making-an-exhibition-of-itself-72070

[6]https://www.aatcomment.org.uk/news/the-food-of-love-how-festivals-support-local-communities/#

[7]http://blog.nsta.org/2019/11/06/science-festivals-focus-on-community-diversity/