How the NI Science Festival came into being and our vision for the future

This year sees the 4th NI Science Festival. The festival came about by chance as I was doing the annual Physics Busking in Trinity College Dublin as part of the Curiosity Science Festival. While I was doing the standing wave demonstration – a quite elaborate interactive demo with barbeque skewers and jelly beans that takes quite a while to accomplish but with a very impressive result–- a man in the crowd heard my Northern Irish accent and we started chatting. He introduced himself as Chris McCreery, then Chair of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and he was very impressed with the IOP Physics Busking as the delivery and explanations made physics accessible to him. He was also delighted that someone from the North was involved.

Lamenting the fact that there was no science festival in the North, we exchanged details and planned a meet-up when we were back home to pursue an NI Science Festival. We spent a year seeking funding and developing partnerships, and found that that local science organisations were very keen on the concept.

Funding was more of a challenge. Northern Ireland has a thriving festival culture based on the arts and culture, but there were no funding streams available for the type of festival that we envisaged. But we were lucky that the then Minister for the Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry MLA, saw the benefits and backed the festival generously. Belfast City Council also came on board from the start.

Our vision was that the festival would become a platform for anyone involved in science to come together and share resources to raise awareness of science – both local and international – with the people of Northern Ireland. An important feature was that we assembled a board with a number of arts personnel to help with the delivery and accessibility of proposed events. The initial 11-day festival aimed to showcase science and technology with the same creativity, flair and marketing that would be expected from an arts or music festival.

As Education and Outreach Adviser for the IOP in Ireland, based in Northern Ireland, the development of the festival was a core part of my remit and its aims were closely aligned with those of the IOP – interweaving an awareness of physics into society in a way that will have a lasting and positive effect throughout Northern Ireland. Physics sits at the core of the festival, with typically six events each festival showcasing speakers such as Jim Al-Khalili and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the ever-popular Physics Busking and the development of a professional exhibition in the Ulster Museum by the Laser Division of Queen’s University Belfast.

We had an initial target of 10,000 attendees but reached an audience of nearly 50,000 with 100 events in the first year. Since then the festival has grown to nearly 200 events spreading out of Belfast into every county across Northern Ireland. Last year’s attendance reached 75,000, meaning the festival is the largest in Ireland and one of the largest in the UK and Europe.

We have started to develop out-of-festival events and my goal is to build on its success to bring physics to the under-served sector – in particular community groups in disadvantaged areas – to embed physics in their lives. One of the most inspiring physicists of the 20th century was John Bell – himself from a disadvantaged area – and his story and legacy will act as a shining light to raise hopes and aspirations through physics in Northern Ireland.

Dr Liz Conlon

Dr Liz Conlon is the Education and Outreach Adviser, Institute of Physics in Ireland.
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