London is our capital city, home to more than ten percent of the UK population and a major hub for finance, tourism, business and culture. It boasts the Royal Society, the British Science Association, national museums, around forty universities, countless science societies, centres of research and a large proportion of the UK media. It has everything you could ever want or need, except maybe a Lidl.
Advertisements in tube stations across London proudly proclaim: ‘Londoners are 26 percent more likely than the rest of the UK to have recently visited a cultural destination.’ Indeed, there are more ‘cultural destinations’ in London than any other UK city, many are free, and most are located within the second largest rapid transit metro system in the world: the London Underground. But it is important to recognise the difference between being cultural, and having the opportunity to be culturally active. Cultural destinations outside the capital might be fewer and further between, but they make no compromise on quality.
There are more than 60 million people in the UK who don’t live in London, and they certainly aren’t sitting around wishing they did. If you can bear the thought of a day in which your personal space remains intact, step away from the bright lights and discover some of the UK’s finest centres of science communication. One of the best is Techniquest, a fantastic science centre in Cardiff renowned for building many of its interactive exhibits ‘in-house’. Elsewhere, the International Centre for Life in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is the largest provider of formal, taught science workshops in Europe, never mind the UK. Further North, Glasgow Science Centre is housed in three incredible buildings on the banks of the River Clyde, one of which – a 100m tall tower – affords views over the entire city. In fact, according to John Durant, ex-Chief Executive of At-Bristol, 90% of the UK population live within two hours of a science centre, and many of these receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Rather predictably, London trumps all of these destinations because it has a gazillion cultural destinations clustered together in one attractive package. A family from Dorset is not going to travel to Glasgow solely to visit its science centre, whether it’s a great day out or not. It is the very concentration of destinations in London that makes its residents seem like cultural crusaders, while the rest of the country has to put in a great deal more travel time and effort for similar gain.
It makes sense for our capital to host the very best in science centres and culture. We love that London is one of the top destination cities in the world, and we want it to provide all that visitors expect. This may justify the London-centric nature of science venues to some extent, but what about other, less tangible forms of science communication?
I have the pleasure of being a member of the British Interactive Group (BIG): a skills-sharing network for individuals involved in the communication of science, technology, engineering and maths. BIG membership is open to all, and aside from a huge online presence (think scicomm twitter), it holds a fantastic science communication event every year. The BIG committee has nine members. Of these, one is from an institute in London. Certainly, there are many London-based members and a few even attend the annual conference, but, unintentionally, BIG has become a society for ‘the provinces’. National museums scarcely make a contribution, and most of BIG’s active members are from regional science centres or affiliated with organisations outside London. Why is it that science communication groups like BIG, aimed specifically at sharing information, only seem to perpetuate the divide?
London science communicators form a natural and rather exclusive group. They not only share an interest in communicating science but also the physical space in which that communication happens. Non-Londoners, on the other hand, must share information and resources remotely, making collaboration a much more involved and difficult undertaking. The great physical distances between these science communicators necessitate active outreach and collaboration in order to promote their work and the centres themselves. London institutions do not need to do this, as there are plenty of potential collaborators (and interested public) in the city already.
Additionally, London science centres and societies are often assumed to be the ‘best in the UK’, and therefore have less need to develop their offer or to learn from what others are doing. Noel Jackson is a past BIG committee member and current Head of Education at the International Centre for Life in Newcastle. A migrant from the south himself, his personal opinion is that “Londoners [can] fail to recognise that the distance from London to Newcastle is exactly the same as the distance between Newcastle and London.” Conversely, out-of-London communicators can feel a sense of competition with their ‘big brothers’ in the smoke, and can even enjoy their independence. The local-boy-done-good mentality can make regional science centres in particular quite insular and resistant to influence from larger institutes in the capital. Indeed, national museums have a government remit and therefore a greater number of frameworks and people to keep sweet, compared to independent organisations which often enjoy a longer leash. Perhaps then, it is natural to stick with ‘your own’. It makes sense to align oneself with others facing the same issues; in this case, regional outfits identify with others who lack the resources of London.
The UK has a fantastic science communication offer, but for this to be considered country-wide rather than London-centric or even anti-London, collaboration is essential. London could certainly do more to promote regional centres, but it has definitely made strides towards closing the gap. Regional science festivals do a lot to highlight the resources of provincial destinations and to entice tourists beyond the underground network. The British Science Festival, for example, is organised by the British Science Association (BSA) in London, but this September it will draw thousands of visitors to Bradford, its host-city. The Wellcome Trust and BSA are major funders of regional science festivals, and touring exhibitions from national museums occasionally make the rounds in cities across the UK. Internet-based societies and social networks are also helping to improve accessibility, and such digital communication is encouraging dialogue between science communicators from all corners of the nation.
London is a self-contained success. It doesn’t need to branch out into the provinces, and it doesn’t need to ask for help. In fact, London doesn’t need to collaborate with anyone at all, but it will continue to do so. Despite the natural tendency to stick with ‘your own’, both sides recognise that fuelling the capital-provinces divide can isolate potential visitors, and degrade our reputation as a cultural nation. As our capital, London has a responsibility not only to host fantastic science communication, but to promote the equally fantastic science communication happening right now across the United Kingdom.
Kate Hazlehurst is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.