Talking Evolution at The British Science Festival

18 10 2009

It’s Thursday night and I’m standing in a student bar in Guildford.  I have just witnessed a man on stage have his chest and nose hair pulled out with tweezers, allegedly illustrating a point about pain receptors. Next the author Bill Bryson takes to the stage to discuss his popular science book ‘a short history of nearly everything’. Enjoying a drink at the table next to me is the moustachioed scientist Professor Robert Winston, who intercepts the roving microphone to ask Bill his opinion on school science lessons. “Not your average Thursday night”, you might say.  Unless, of course, you are at the British Science Festival, an annual gathering where over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and speakers meet to discuss the latest scientific developments with more than 50,000 members of the public.

The British Science Association (formerly known as the BA) has been holding its annual festival for no less than 178 years.  The festival is one of many ways the association achieves its aim to ‘connect science with people’, and has provided a platform for numerous scientific announcements from the first use of the term ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, to the demonstration of wireless transmission in 1894.  Stephen Hawking gave his first public talk at the 1982 festival in Liverpool.  So how did I, a PhD student from Edinburgh, get involved with the 2009 event? Back in March an email landed in my inbox about a competition called Perspectives.  The ‘poster session with a difference’ invited researchers to explore the social and ethical implications of their work and gain valuable experience in public engagement.

Perspectives at the British Science Festival

Perspectives at the British Science Festival

I submitted a piece of writing designed to enlighten a non-specialist audience about the fascinating world of chickens and bacteria, and was lucky enough to be shortlisted as a finalist.  A few months later, along with 35 other PhD students and post-doctoral researchers from across the UK, I travelled down to the Dana Centre in London for training in science communication and poster design.  Armed with new-found skills and enthusiasm for the task in hand, we set off back to our universities and institutes to work on our posters, which were unveiled when we arrived in Guildford for the festival in September.

Visitors to our hall of posters ranged from scientists and engineers to journalists and politicians, including the science minister Lord Drayson.  Several families and school groups also passed through, and I was approached by an inquisitive young student with a dislike for chicken burgers.  She was keen to persuade her mum to stop cooking them for her dinner, and thought that a bit of scientific backing would help her on this mission.

Enlightening the judges about the wonderful world of chickens and bacteria

Enlightening the judges about the wonderful world of chickens and bacteria

Away from poster duties, we also had time to attend some of the talks and events taking place.  An interesting session called ‘pest wars’ discussed the evolutionary arms race raging in our fields, between insects and the pesticides we’re using to combat them.  The scientists behind the research later held a press conference, as did several of the most prominent speakers at the festival, covering hot topics such as global food shortages and pandemic flu management.  This allowed journalists to quiz the scientists on issues of interest to their readers, and were clearly fruitful if the expanse of newspaper clippings pinned to boards in the media zone were anything to go by.

Evening events also provided science-related entertainment.  Robert Winston no doubt gained a few fans when he stated that “PhD students are the backbone of scientific research”, in a chat show style interview conducted by eminent physicist Jim Al-Khalili. The Chancellors Bar at the heart of Surrey University campus played host to a more light-hearted event called ‘X-change’, a daily round up of festival highlights compered by enthusiastic science writer and BBC broadcaster Sue Nelson.  In addition to the aforementioned nose hair plucking, the audience learned about the dangers of licking metal poles in the Antarctic, how to build a racing car using chocolate and carrots, and the anatomical accuracy (or otherwise) of drug smuggling capacity detailed in the books of crime writer Stuart MacBride.

Professor Robert Winston - The Man Behind the Moustache

Professor Robert Winston - The Man Behind the Moustache

Returning to the competition, our third day at the festival was spent talking to a panel of expert judges from the world of science communication.  They posed plenty of challenging but very interesting questions, prompting in-depth discussion all round.  Gemma Webster from the University of Dundee was the deserving winner with her poster ‘What’s in a label?’ about her research into dementia and the elderly.  I was delighted to be one of five runners up, and left Guildford at the end of the week glad to have taken part.  Perspectives provided an opportunity to talk about my work to a completely different audience and to meet a whole host of interesting people, all enthusiastic about their research and keen to spread the word about the wonders of science.

The 2010 festival is being held in Birmingham at Aston University, and will no doubt have plenty of interesting speakers and exciting events to get involved with.  My one piece of advice – if you find yourself in the front row when a biologist asks for a ‘particularly hairy volunteer’ for his experiment on pain receptors, it may be wise to keep quiet.


This is an early version of a piece that appeared in the 5th edition of the EUSci magazine. Feel free to take a look at the finished article, and the rest of the magazine at

Also, check out the following links to find out more about the festival and the competition:

Perspectives competition –

British Science Festival –

British Science Association –

Sue Nelson’s blog from the festival –

British Science Festival blog –



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