Science communication, up North? Wey aye man!

Glasgow Science Centre. Photograph: Flickr/Wojtek Gurak

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.

Newcastle Centre for Life. Photograph: Flickr/iknow-uk

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.

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8 comments

  1. Nice, though pedantry insists I point out that John Durant’s been at MIT for years and I’m sure I pass a Lidl on my bus route home (zone 2).

    Worth mentioning the Beacons…?

  2. Kate, I’d be interested to know which ‘provincial’ (slightly unfortunate use of this word) science communication outfits you’ve experienced operationally (i.e. not just been to as a visitor). As a ‘provincial science communicator’ I can happily say that we’re rarely overwhelmed by what London has to offer — not that it isn’t excellent, but it’s certainly not always the most innovative stuff that’s going on.

    It would be helpful if you could reference some of your claims, such as “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.” Can you give some tangible examples of that?

    My job is to work collaboratively with science centres and museums of all shapes and sizes all across the country. I can assure you, they do not feel insular and are not resistant to *positive* influences from anywhere, London or otherwise. And again, I wonder about “regional outfits identify with others who lack the resources of London.” Which resources in particular are you thinking?

    In fact, I would anecdotally suggest (since that seems to be all that is required) that London science communicators could learn a lot from us in the provinces.

  3. Hi Matt,

    I agree that there’s a lot of great stuff coming from all corners of the country – indeed I only said that it’s assumed London is the best (and I actually often think it’s the opposite). Because regional centres recognise that London probably isn’t going to be knocking on their door any time soon for a collaboration, and because the next science centre might be a three hour drive away, and perhaps because they’re self-funded, they need to be able to achieve success independently. In Newcastle there is a lot of regional pride and, in addition, some pretty prevalent anti-London prejudice – it’s this sort of ‘we can do just as well as the big boys, or better, and we don’t need their help’ mentality that I was alluding to. I certainly don’t think it’s something that gets said in the management suites of science centres, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t influence decisions or at least exist in some people’s minds. You’re right, I don’t have tangible examples of where a centre has actively resisted collaboration with London, but rather I think some would prefer not to have it and to remain independent. Perhaps then the first quote you raised issue with should have been expressed more clearly as a suggestion of underlying feelings rather than any active resistance – and it is my opinion. Admittedly however, I’m aware that my experience might apply more readily to a North-Vs-London debate, rather than a ‘Provinces’-Vs-London one.

    I worked at Centre for Life and the Great North Museum in Newcastle for about a year and while that by no means gives me license to speak for every ‘provincial’ science centre in the UK, I get the impression that they felt separated somehow from SciComm in London, but not other cities like Manchester, Cardiff etc. I wanted to suggest why that might be, and I’m not convinced it’s solely because London isolates itself. I think it’s also due to shared circumstance, and partly because (some) regional centres even enjoy or are used to their independence from the capital.

    I agree with you that when it comes to great ideas nobody is going to be so proud to refuse them because they come from the capital, just that some might prefer them to come from elsewhere – whether that is because of regional pride, or issues with using National material for regional audiences, or difficulties with National frameworks and outcomes that would inform a collaboration…or whatever.

    By ‘resources’ I mean the numerous science outfits/cultural destinations (for collaborations/cross-promotion), Royal Societies, various museum collections, forty universities, millions of visitors per annum…all the benefits a London-based institution enjoys – which may be present elsewhere in the country, but on a much smaller scale. So my point is that regional centres share similar problems (e.g. lower visitor numbers, fewer local collections to draw from) because of their location – while London has this pool of ‘resources’ to overcome a lot of these problems. This is part of the reason I believe regional centres have a more open dialogue with each other and enjoy more collaborations together than with London. I did not mean that regional centres don’t have the resources to produce great science communication, just that London has some unfair advantages.

    I totally agree with your last point, which is why I think more collaboration is needed across the board.

  4. Hi Kate,

    Nice article! Just thought I’d plug that, in addition to the Festival, the British Science Association has tons of active branches all over the country who do some amazing things – http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/RegionsandBranches/index.htm

    And a shameless plug for National Science and Engineering Week which has, at this point, around 1900 registered events taking place all over the country!

    And… British Science Association in full, please 😉 (Sorry, hate to do it…)

  5. Just to add – The anti-london prejudice is amongst the Newcastle public – I’m not speaking for either scicomm outift mentioned.

  6. I feel it’s perfectly logical to suggest that ‘cultural centres’ outside London DO have something of an inferiority complex. London has a bigger population and a higher number of visitors. Maybe the general feeling that London has all anyone would ever need with respect to culture (apart from to those ‘in the know’) creates a situation where more people flock to London and the feeling escalates… a sort of vicious circle if you will.

    I’d suggest this extends far beyond science establishments/organisations. Live music venues, restaurants etc.

    Maybe this even generates a bit of hostility, and a desire to stand out from the London based institutions.

    It may be a bit sensitive, but it’s certainly fair to suggest it. And I, for one, agree.

  7. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for replying and interesting to hear your thoughts. I think the problem is that you appear to be trying to say that you think good science engagement (let’s not regress to didactic ‘communication’) happens outside of London, but ‘doesn’t it have to try hard’. In effect if your organisation is not in London, you’re simply a pretender and probably you really want to be in London. If you’re not meaning to patronise organisations based outside of the capital then stop using terms like ‘provincial’ and ‘the big boys’.

    Of course, London has excellent ‘resources’, and access to greater numbers of people, in particular tourists. But so what. Reaching lots of people that are there to be reached doesn’t necessarily mean that something’s being done exceptionally well.

    I’m surprised that having worked for the Centre for Life you’re unaware of the huge number of collaborative projects that they have been and are involved in, with organisations across the country from Glasgow to Manchester to Bristol to Cardiff… And Centre for Life is just one example; there are lots and lots of science communication/ engagement organisations that work together across the country. These aren’t begrudging collaborations; it’s because there’s recognition that working together produces better results. I’m sure that organisations would very happily collaborate with London-based organisations if there were suitable opportunities to do it (and watch this space…).

    Where frustration with London might lie is that, as with most things, London (generally) has more money to throw at things and so non-London places can’t just to anything they’d like to do. However, that does not mean that other organisations are running to stand still. In response to Eloise’s point as well: I don’t think there’s an ‘inferiority complex’ out there — non-London centres are not begrudgingly wishing that they could be doing stuff that happens in the capital. Really good, innovative engagement happens outside the capital but it might take a bit more work to achieve — it’s justifiable to be miffed that if you did the same work in London it would be easier; but that does not equate to an inferiority complex.

    (Eloise, incidentally, there are very, very few institutions in London that are not matched or bettered elsewhere in the country; having everything in one place in great for convenience, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all.)

    I think your article would’ve been much better if you’d written it the other way around: highlighted the great, fantastic science engagement that happens all around the country and how London-based organisations could benefit from engaging with that.

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