Interview: Simon Gage, Edinburgh Science Festival Director

Submitted by edg on Thu, 29 Mar '12 11.58am

When Dr. Simon Gage became director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival (EISF) back in 1995, the world was a very different place.

“The human genome hadn't been decoded; CERN was just getting going; quarks were relatively new; dark matter hadn't been thought about; people weren't scanning people's brains very commonly with NMR machines,” reflects Gage, who trained as a physicist at Bristol before his studies took him to  Edinburgh University via Dundee. “There's been a lot of change.”

Go back even further to 1988, the year that the Edinburgh International Science Festival was founded and Tim Berners-Lee hadn't invented the World Wide Web; there were 5.1 billion human beings on the planet (compared to the 7 billion plus now); and in June of that year a NASA scientist called James Hansen caused a sensation after telling the US Congress, “It is time to stop waffling so much and say the evidence is pretty strong that the Greenhouse Effect is here.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, “the world's first science festival” has established itself as a vital cog in the Edinburgh Festival cycle. The EISF can be relied on to provide a jam-packed jamboree of fun, often madcap science activities to entertain kids pouring out of schools at Easter. And while the world turns ever faster, it offers numerous talks and events to shed light and provoke debate on some of the burning scientific issues and breakthroughs of the day.

“I give myself the goal of being introduced to one idea that completely rocks me to the core at each festival, and I haven't failed yet,” says Gage. He expects to be working 9am-to-midnight days over the next two weeks as 80,000 people come through the doors.

One of the highlights in 2012 will be the appearance of the same Jim Hansen, who first stirred things up all those years ago, in the Edinburgh Medal Address (he's also appearing in two other climate events).

In a recent TED talk in California, Hansen predicted sea levels rising possibly 18 feet. Gage anticipates it will be a powerful, passionate talk.

Climate change is a big one for the festival. In spite of the fact that big carbon emitters are listed among its partners (ExxonMobil, Total, Talisman Energy), Gage is clear where the EISF stands on climate change.

“As far as we are concerned it's the real thing. No doubt. Absolutely no doubt,” he says emphatically.

He adds: “It's going to be painful. The threats are huge. It's the easiest thing in the world to just say, 'Until it's absolutely certain I'll just forget about it.' But we do that at our peril.”

Gage admits that for someone involved in the communication of good science it's been “dispiriting” how effective the climate-change denial camp has been in sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion in the public's mind (“a case study in the power of disinformation,” he says), particularly given the unanimity of the scientific community over the grave threat that climate-change poses.

Hansen is not the first climate scientist to be honoured by the Edinburgh Science Festival. In 2008, Professor Chris Rapley won it, telling his audience significant changes in our lifestyles need to be made to adjust and limit damage caused by climate change.

In 2006, Gaia theorist James Lovelock won the Edinburgh Medal. The much respected and oft-called “maverick” scientist said that only 7 out of 10 people in the world will be left alive within 50 to 100 years due to rapidly increasing climate change, even if the nations of the world found the political will to take drastic action (which, of course, they haven't).

Gage remembers Lovelock's Edinburgh Medal address as “one of the most emotionally charged events that the Edinburgh Science Festival has ever run.”.

Doing it for the children

For the most part, the prevailing image of the EISF is one of experimental fun as kids from 3 years upwards don white coats and safety goggles and dive into all manner of mental activities.

Kids get gooey

This year, old favourites like the blood bar (where you can mix your own scabs), and mummy wrapping (where you try to find out how an ancient mummified person died), sit alongside Easter egg-making workshops (in Science on a Plate) and a "dad dancing" event.

The latter, which explores the science behind why dads are such embarrassing dancers, is part of the EISF's new InMotion strand which, tying in with the 2012 Olympics, looks at the science of human movement through workshops, talks, and a free exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Potions brewed at the EISFWith workshops like “Pongy Potions”, “Dig Up a Dinosaur”, and “Splat-tastic”, the festival takes a gleefully populist approach. There's even an EISF street performance team that tours the city by bicycle.

But it wasn't always so.

Gage remembers a time when members of the public were seen more as “vessels half full of information”. From a “very preachy approach”, he says the festival developed a greater empathy for where visitors are coming from, the language they communicate in, and what interests them, rather than what the programmers feel should interest them.

Gage sees the EISF kids' stuff as particularly strong – and one of the main reasons that he was awarded an OBE by the Queen in June 2010 for “Services to Science Communication”.

“They're quite unique, immersive experiences. People learn a lot and get really motivated and that's quite a rare thing in the world of science communication.”

With adult activities, “Science” is also a fairly broad tent, encapsulating everything from the likes of psychological illusionist Derren Brown talking about the tricks of his trade to Richard Dawkins laying into Creationists and Christians (Dawkins is unusually absent from the science festival this year).

The very customer-focused, “tight, commercial model” has allowed the EISF to grow into one of the biggest science festivals on the world scene says Gage. It has also inspired other science festivals.

Last year, the EISF was a programming partner for a new, nine-day science festival in Abu Dhabi. The EISF also continues to take its shows and workshops on the road to 55,000 children in schools throughout Scotland each year.

Location, location, location

Being in the world's most competitive festival city is “a double-edged sword” says Gage. There's competition for audiences, for sponsorship, and to provide a memorable experience. But competition also keeps the EISF sharp. “You've got to be pretty good otherwise you just get left by the wayside,” he says.

You can see the creative mash-up of auld and new and various elements of all the festivals with the this year's Edinburgh Enlightenment Exchange, aka Edinburgh E2, which involves 12 speakers each giving 20-minute, “TED-like” talks. Compered by Quentin Cooper from Radio 4, it features artists (including the director of the EIF's Speed of Light event), scientists, and entrepreneurs.

The other big advantages of being based in Edinburgh include having world class universities on the door step, longstanding funding support from Scottish and local governments, and partners such as the National Museum and Edinburgh Zoo to work with.

"Amazing stuff is done here," he says, citing bio-sciences work, the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University, and the renewable energy sector. A third of the bio-science researchers in the UK live and work in Edinburgh, the bio-quarter at Roslin, birth place of Dolly the cloned sheep, being perhaps best-known.

Gage talks excitedly about the Pelamis plant in Leith where they are making huge, red, wave-powered generators. Pelamis was the first exporter of electricity from an offshore wave energy converter to an onshore grid. “There's a revolution going on and they're part of it! It's in a big blue shed in Leith!”

Gage suggests that while Edinburgh, for its size, is not a world player in dollar amounts like the golden triangle of Oxford, London and Cambridge or the San Francisco Bay Area, its trajectory is “very encouraging”.

“It's quite extraordinary that for a city of half a million people, and even a country of 5 million people,  how much world class science is done here."

The Edinburgh International Science Festival 2012 starts tomorrow, 30th March, and runs til 15th April in venues across Edinburgh.