Dr Frank Burnet argues that arts festivals are the best place to showcase the interface between science and performance

When eight-year-old children from many different countries were recently asked to draw a scientist the great majority drew a bespectacled, scruffy looking man wearing a white coat. Adults were not set the same challenge but it would be a reasonable bet that they would have resorted to similar imagery. Many have argued that this stereotype is damaging to societies that are becoming increasingly dependent on science-derived innovation to improve the quality of life of their citizens and can create a cultural climate in which young people see a scientific career, particularly in the physical sciences, as something only pursued by nerdy men who do not get out much. It is also widely accepted now that one way of addressing the problem is to ensure that science is taught in ways that place it in its social context – hence recent alterations to the school science curriculum, and investment by funders in a plethora of collaborations between artists and scientists designed to engage people with issues raised by science for society.

The fruits of these partnerships need platforms and festivals are proving to be one of the most useful vehicles for this purpose. Science festivals, which are growing explosively in number across the world, are partly fulfilling this role, but most are targeted principally at children and their main messages are that science is amazing and that your country needs you to become a scientist. It’s not a great context for work created for adults designed to prompt reflection and debate about the relationship between science and society. By contrast, arts festivals generally have this ethos. That is why organisations like Cheltenham Festivals have been able to develop science strands to considerable acclaim, and why Canterbury Festival’s programme for this year includes a cluster of events, under the banner Science Centre Stage, featuring some of the most exciting work at the interface between science and performance. Acts include Your Days are Numbered, a Wellcome trust funded comedy show about our chances of dying, and Meet the Gene Machine, a drama triggered debate about the pros and cons of genetic profiling.

A second reason that has not escaped the Director, Rosie Turner’s attention is that there were sources of both public and private support that would be much more likely to provide funding if science was part of the offering, and sure enough the University of Kent has become the sponsor of the strand.

The vision for the future is that an increasing number of festivals, be they either predominantly arts or science orientated, look to include more work at the science and art boundary in their programming because experience shows that it is often at interfaces between disciplines that there are the greatest stimuli for creativity for practitioners, performers and the public. Festivals are at their best when acting not only as performance platforms but as creative spaces that bring together talented individuals whose professional worlds might not otherwise overlap. It’s that kind of chemistry that the world needs.

Dr Frank Burnet is Science Co-ordinator for Canterbury Festival info@canterburyfestival.co.uk t: 01227 452853 Canterbury Festival attracts an audience of over 70,000 people to 200 free and ticketed events. In 2011 the Festival ventures for the first time into the realm of science and the arts. www.canterburyfestival.co.uk