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Festival of science Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Sparking interest in science
Face BBC
Robots are a favourite at the festival
By Toby Murcott of BBC Science

UK scientists are hoping to create a few sparks in London over the next seven days.

They will be walking around South Kensington to give talks and run experiments that it is hoped will fire the imagination of the public.

People get to see and touch real research, and the scientists are reminded who pays their grants - that's part of the idea, anyway.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science has been running a once-a-year festival since the 19th Century. It has become a major national event, taking place each year in a different city across the country.

Ageing model

The American Association for the Advancement of Science runs a similar conference and many others have sprung up around the world. It is a model that seems to work, but one which Dr Jack Cohen, biologist and author, says is beginning to show its age.

"I really do think the British Association festival itself is very 19th Century," he told the BBC. "It actually does set up a kind of altar for these science groupies to come and worship at. But I think that isn't the place where the BA is doing good or indeed doing the job it sees itself as doing."

But Peter Briggs, Chief Executive of the BA, is very clear about the festival's role.

"It's an excellent opportunity for scientists and non-scientists to meet each other in formal and non-formal session," he said.

"But it's also an excellent meeting place for the growing number of people concerned about the communication of science. It ought to be an excellent meeting place too for, say, scientists and politicians and other groups. We may have to ask ourselves what form it has in order to do that, but I think as a national annual meeting place for these things it has a role to play."

Spreading the word

Jack Cohen agrees that the festival helps spread the word about scientific innovation, "but not because of what the BA does". He believes the media are responsible for that.

"The media, television, radio and newspapers, now send good people out to interpret, to stand in between. It really is prophet standing between God and the populace. Again it's a very 19th Century idea that the populace needs the media to interpret. And by God it does. Too many of the scientists don't put their science out as if it was to people. They don't talk about it as they would to their mother or their aunt or their children."

But Peter Briggs argues that the whole point of the festival is to break down the gap between scientists and non-scientists.

"If there is a sort of misconception, both among the public on the one hand about what scientists are really like and among scientists on the other hand about how ignorant and stupid the public are, the best way to correct it is to create opportunities where they can meet with each other and talk with each other.

"And my belief is that an event like the BA festival is an ideal opportunity to do that."

The science festival is part of the BA's wider event called Creating Sparks which runs until 30 September in South Kensington, London. There are about 400 events. Creating Sparks is centred on Imperial College, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Geographical Society, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"The last century's greatest scientists have had a makeover"
The BBC's Toby Murcott
"The test of this festival's success will be how far it is able to dispel mysteries and misconceptions"
See also:

06 Sep 00 | Festival of science
12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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