Science Festivals: how can we challenge the power of big business?

ResponsibleSci blog entry by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, 28 March 2014

The rationale behind science festivals and other similar science communications events is to try to enthuse people (especially young people) about science and point out how important it is in our lives. At their best, they can be educational, fun and thought-provoking. At their worst, they can be little more than glossy public relations efforts bordering on propaganda. The latter has become a particular problem in recent years with the considerable growth in corporate sponsorship, especially that from arms companies and the fossil fuel industry.

SGR’s activities in this area have also grown in response to this problem. We first highlighted the ethical issues with BAE Systems being a lead sponsor of the national ‘Big Bang fair’ back in 2009, in a joint press release with Campaign Against Arms Trade. We’ve published various critical articles in the media since – for example, this one on the New Left Project website last year. In the last few months, we have complained to the organisers of the Edinburgh Science Festival about sponsorship from arms company Selex ES, while numerous SGR members were among the over 100 signatories of a letter co-ordinated by Science Unstained complaining about arms industry sponsorship of the Big Bang fair. We have also been publicising an online petition on this issue started by Algerian scientist and human rights campaigner, Hamza Hamouchene. 

To complement the campaigning activity, we have just hosted a small event of our own to demonstrate an alternative for science education for primary school children. SGR’s office is located in a cutting-edge eco-development, incorporating highly energy efficient homes, small-scale renewable energy technologies, and co-operative living and working practices. So, with the help of local university students, we hosted tours around the site, and ran workshops on making ‘insect hotels’ and model water turbines. There was even a talk by a local farmer on sustainable farming. The activities were specifically arranged to meet elements of the national curriculum on science, geography and citizenship.

We intend to organise more of these events in the future.

And there are other small, but hopeful, signs of change. The Edinburgh Science Festival is this year hosting a debate, involving SGR, on the ethics of military involvement in science. Some of the controversial sponsors of the Big Bang fair in previous years – such as Shell and Saudi Aramco – dropped out in 2014, while there were more workshops this year on more positive areas like renewable energy, run by organisations such as the Centre for Alternative Technology.

There is a long way to go, but positive change is starting to happen.