The development of Orkney Science Festival would have been impossible without the core support of Orkney Islands Council. Orkney’s rich diversity of festivals is the result of the vision of the former Orkney Tourist Board, supported by the economic development resources of the Council’s Reserve Fund.
The Tourist Board wanted to extend Orkney’s tourist season from its summer peak, and they noted the high levels of visitor numbers attracted to the Isle of Man by its various festivals through the year. They therefore encouraged the development of first the St Magnus Festival and then Orkney Folk Festival.
Both of these festivals had a tremendous feeling of community about the way in which they took shape. The St Magnus Festival came about through the move to Orkney of the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, his meeting with the Bevan family and the poet George Mackay Brown, and then the energy and flair of the team of Archie Bevan, Norman Mitchell and Jack Ridgway who made it happen, with vitality and flair.
The idea of island Folk Festivals had been developing in discussions between the Orkney and Shetland Tourist Boards, and the opportunity to move forward with the Orkney concept came when Marjorie Linklater wanted to invite to Orkney a talented poet from Northern Ireland, James Simmons. BBC Radio Orkney agreed to contribute some sponsorship if a package could be developed which included one or two musicians, and a BBC producer in Belfast – Paul Muldoon (renowned today for his poetry) – found them. The Scottish Arts Council needed an organisation to channel grant funding through, and so the Orkney Folk Festival Society was born. The visit was a resounding success, and the Society met on the last day of the year to plan the first Orkney Folk Festival for the following May, just five months away.
That same spirit of enterprise was in the air when the Tourist Board heard about the success of the Edinburgh Science Festival in 1989. The Board’s Chief Executive, Josh Gourlay, who had been to the fore in the development of the St Magnus Festival and the Folk Festival, was ahead of all the other regions of the UK in seeing a way to adapt the science festival concept locally. Even areas like Cheltenham, with some of Britain’s finest festivals, had to wait for a number of years before they could see a way to develop the idea in the most appropriate way.
All three Festivals in Orkney received core support from Orkney Islands Council’s Reserve Fund. This is the fund that was established when the oil industry came to Orkney in the 1970s. The aim of the Fund is to support developments which will help to sustain Orkney in the years to come as North Sea oil runs down, and the expansion of tourism has long been a priority.
The first Orkney Science Festival took place in 1991, opened by Professor Heinz Wolff. It was the world’s second science festival, after Edinburgh.
Over the years since then, the programme has included speakers such as primatologist Jane Goodall, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, physicist Prof. Peter Higgs, American astronaut John Young, cognitive psychologist Prof. Richard Gregory, educator Bunker Roy, Nobel laureate Brian Josephson, mathematician John Barrow, and television presenters Heather Couper, Tim Hunkin and Kathy Sykes.
Turnouts for events are high, with over 4,800 attendances for ticketed events in the 2016 Festival. The total attendance figure for the Festival, including unticketed and schools events, was just over 12,800.
Despite the success of the first Edinburgh Science Festival, many other places were slow to take up the idea. One reason was uncertainty as to whether something developed in a festival city like Edinburgh could naturally be adapted to conditions elsewhere. Also to many people in science and industry, the concept was still in its very early days. But Edinburgh’s success continued and over the course of time science festivals began to appear in various other towns and cities in the UK and overseas.
In some areas the driving force was educational, with colleges or universities to the fore, and in others it was economic development, following Edinburgh’s ‘city of science’ approach.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science took a short cut, rebranding its annual general meeting as a science festival. The annual meeting, which takes place each year in a university town, has a programme of presentations compiled by specialist panels and although not originally festive in structure, has always had a social core as well, and the Association has been gradually modifying the format, to give it more of the feeling of a festival. The Association has also gone on to rebrand itself as the British Science Association.
On the continent of Europe, however, the science festival concept was taken forward in an imaginative way by various areas, amongst them Gothenburg, where the annual science festival has all the sparkle of a spring morning on the Baltic. You can go to a talk on polar science and then a concernt of music on an Arctic theme, or hear a presentation on polymers and visit an exhibition of new fashion design. The venues range from modern lecture theatre to 17th-century buildings on the waterfront, lit by lamps and candles.
There is a similar sparkle about Festival Nauke in Belgrade, and in science festivals in cities like Warsaw and Genoa, where events take place in historic buildings, from cathedrals to private homes.
The Rolls Royce of science festivals has to be the World Science Festival. Taking place in New York in five days of late May or early June, it was co-founded by string theorist Prof. Brian Greene and its leading members include the actor Alan Alda, who has hosted various award-winning series of science broadcasts. The panel of advisers contains some of the best-known names in science and the media, and there is a team of 47 staff to run the programme. The result is a programme of very high quality which has included highlights such as a panel discussion on neuroscience and the nature of music featuring Bobby McFerrin with an explanation of the pentatonic scale and audience participation in a clip which has since been viewed by more than two million people: see it here.
You can sample some other highlights from the World Science Festival on its own video channel.