Backstage pass: taking science outreach to music festivals
Update! The preprint of the paper featured in this blog post is downloadable here.
Last week my fellow blogger Matt Shipman tweeted about a paper which immediately caught my attention: Sex & Bugs & Rock'n'Roll. This paper, by Emma Sayer and colleagues makes the argument that public engagement by scientists is important but is sometimes tricky to do, especially with 'non-traditional' audiences. Although many scientists do outreach in elementary schools, give public seminars, or are involved with outreach programs at museums, it's sometimes difficult to envision ways to do science outreach with people that may not be a captured audience, or may not have already selected to be somewhere where science was on the agenda. Emma and her colleagues argue that music festivals are perfect places to set up display booths about science, in part because the people attending music festivals are there with open minds, and are ready to have fun and be 'engaged', at least with music. In other words, they are READY TO ROCK!!, They are primed for cool science and might just stop by a booth that is displaying honeybee colonies, and taking swabs microbiology cultures. Furthermore, this is potentially a huge captive audience, as there are typically crowds of people at music festivals.
Emma and her colleagues used entomology and microbiology as a way to capture people's curiosity, and bring the science to where the people are. In addition to display materials, the scientists also did hands-on activities, and really worked to make the material interesting and creative. Although I'm highly biased, I also think 'bugs' are a great topic with which to engage the public - they either creep people out, or amaze people (or both!). Everyone has a story to tell about their experiences with bugs, and it's what you might call 'common science ground'.
I was curious about a behind the scenes look at how this kind of public engagement works, and Emma was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:
1) Where did the idea arise about using the venue of music festivals to engage the public about ecology?
The idea came from two different sources… first of all, I love music and it’s always been very important to me. I’ve always enjoyed going to festivals and gigs. While at a workshop on public engagement, I met Helen Featherstone, who presented Einstein at Glastonbury – fun doing physics at Glastonbury Festival for Einstein Year. Of course, I was blown away by the idea and decided on the spot that I wanted to take Ecology to music festivals. A few weeks later, I made a pitch to a few colleagues (including Will Gosling) and then got in touch with Helen to see if she would be interested in collaborating… it all evolved from there.
2) What are the challenges around the sustainability of taking science outreach to music festivals?
The main problem is the organisational work and logistics. We recruited volunteers and arranged training workshops so that we had enough people on the ground at the festivals (that’s the fun part), but as lead, I essentially had two full-time jobs when the project got rolling. We all worked for free in our spare time, and working with volunteers can be unpredictable. As this was the first time we had done anything like this, we had a vested interest in making it work, but we still made contingency plans for people dropping out when they got too busy. This year, we’re just doing a single festival while we work out how to continue the initiative. The British Ecological Society are very keen to keep it going, and we’re looking into a few possible partnerships with non-profit organisations and universities. The main difficulty will be finding the funding to hire someone part-time (or create an internship job) during the festival season to do the organising/ logistics/ coordination.
3) How do you convince researchers to take part?
One of the incentives is free entry to music festivals!! …this kind of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so the people who sign up for it either want to experience something different or, like me, believe that we’re not great at communicating our research and need to spend more time on effective and novel ways of doing so. Most of us are convinced that science is often seen as stuffy old men in lab-coats and we wanted to shake off that image. The majority of our volunteers were PhD students who wanted to do something exciting and different. They got free training, access to festivals, met like-minded people and had something to put on their CV. As an added benefit, interacting with non-scientists gave us a completely different perspective on our own research and made us revisit how we communicate. It’s pretty exhausting talking to people non-stop (and being enthusiastic about it), so we worked 2-3 hour shifts during the festivals, and usually from 10am to early evening (finishing sometime between 6 and 8pm). This meant that everyone could go and catch a few acts and enjoy the rest of the festival. Everyone who took part had a great time and would do it again.
4) Are there other 'non-traditional' audiences/festivals that you envision a similar opportunity, and are you pursuing these avenues?
Yes! We’ve thought of a few things we’d like to do. Places like shopping malls are an obvious one but other types of festivals and fairs would also be good – we have loads of literary, food and historical festivals here in the UK. The great thing about this is that the set-up is flexible, can be tailored to different events and audiences and works just about everywhere. We had the big stall and full kit to take to music festivals but we also did a University event, a school day and a museum event. We did the last one with a couple of bags and travelled by train. We also have one big idea for science busking that we’re saving for next year… watch this space!
5) Any amusing, interesting anecdotes to share?
There are so many nice stories to tell from our summer on the road, it’s hard to know which ones to pick. We got to go backstage and ‘swab’ a member of one of the headline acts (Greg Dread of Dreadzone, who was brilliant). At one of the festivals four women came to the stall and were delighted when they saw that we were culturing microbes from peoples’ clothes. It turned out that they were all microbiologists and “weren’t allowed to do that at work” so they enthusiastically swabbed each other (photo below). We met a lot of really interesting people, and kids gave us drawings, postcards and lots of ‘bugs’. The best part of the whole summer for me was people’s reaction when they heard that we were all research-active. They were delighted – to the extent that some even shook our hands and congratulated us on ‘getting out there’ and doing something different. We always expect people to come to us (lectures, museums, science fairs) – we’re the experts and should be sought out – so making the effort of stepping out of our comfort zone and going to the people was a really positive thing to do.
In sum, I hope this idea will resonate with scientists, and we can see 'bug booths' at music festivals around the world. It's a great opportunity for science outreach, and for a back-stage pass to some great acts!
(A BIG thanks to Emma for agreeing to answer some questions about this activity and provide some photos. You can find additional materials and photos from this blog, and you can follow Emma on twitter)
Sayer, E., H. Featherstone & W. Gosling. Sex & Bugs & Rock ‘n Roll – getting creative about public engagement. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2013.12.008