A week at the British Science Festival: explosions, excitement and (hopefully) equality

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This summer I was lucky enough to attend the British Science Festival. Held in Birmingham for a week in September, this event brings together scientists, students and members of the public to celebrate science in all of its geeky glory.

I attended the festival as part of my BP Women in Science Award, a bursary awarded to women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) at Durham. The need for such an award might surprise some people; in 2014, haven’t we achieved gender equality? Well, no.

Although I come from an undergraduate class with a 50:50 gender ratio, the lack of women in STEM becomes increasingly apparent as you advance in the field of science.

As soon as I arrived at the festival, my belief that women in STEM should be encouraged as much as possible was cemented even further. At most of the talks I attended, the audience, and indeed the lecturers themselves, consisted of about 80% men.

The biggest issue with the lack of women in STEM seems to be that it is an invisible problem; many of the people I spoke to at the festival thought that it was a non-issue, something that had been solved years ago by employment diversity quotas. After the closing presidential address, Sir Paul Nurse was asked about the lack of women in senior scientist positions.

He suggested that better maternity leave and part time positions were the solution. I asked him if he had any other ideas, considering the fact that women are not just for having babies – this seemed to stump him since he didn’t really answer the question.

It was this kind of lively debate that I really enjoyed at the festival – being surrounded by so many like-minded people created lots of fascinating discussions, spurred on by the varied talks.

Overall I found the festival to be a fantastic experience

During the festival, every day was packed with events; everything from climate change to cancer therapy, fusion power to the future of cities was discussed.

As an extremely keen chemistry student I particularly enjoyed the explosive practical demonstration of alchemy given by Jim Al-Khalili and Andrea Sella. I’m not sure my eardrums will ever be the same again.

Of course, when the sun goes down, science doesn’t stop; on one night, we spent an evening celebrating Joseph Priestley with liquid nitrogen cooled cocktails, magic tricks, more exploding experiments and some slightly bonkers performance art.

Politics was ever-present at the festival, appropriately enough considering how much influence it has over modern science research.

The first event that I attended, entitled “Is Politics Bad at Science?” gave me my favourite quote of the entire festival; Lord Dick Taverne referred to MPs as “wretched, despicable creatures”.

Also discussing government policy at the festival was David Nutt, who gave a talk about the UK’s drugs and alcohol policy. The general opinion given by many of the speakers seemed to be that government policy needs to be more conscious of science and that scientists need to be taken more seriously by politicians.

The event that I looked forward to the most at the festival was the Women in Science networking event, and I was not disappointed.

Although I was initially a bit apprehensive, I was lured in by the prospect of free food and wine, and once there I found the atmosphere friendly and supportive. I had the opportunity to talk to many members of the scientific community who were all focused specifically on encouraging women into scientific careers.

I also spoke to representatives from the Daphne Jackson Trust, a charity specialising in helping people to return to careers in STEM research after a career break, often as a result of having children or caring for family members. While situations like this are no longer exclusively applicable to women, women are certainly counted in the majority of those who need opportunities like this.

Overall I found the festival to be a fantastic experience, and I’m surprised more people don’t know about it. Most of the talks are free and it’s held during summer holidays, so it’s perfect for students.

I would highly recommend all STEM students (particularly women) to apply to any kind of scholarship or bursary you can get your hands on, especially if it gets you to places like this.

Photograph: Olig. on flickr

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