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Science Festivals

The science festival concept comes from Scotland. It was created by Ian Wall of Edinburgh City Council’s Economic Development Department, as part of a vision for a regeneration of Edinburgh involving its longstanding role as – a ‘City of Science’.

The practical aspect of the regeneration led to the development of the South Gyle Science Park and many other innovative projects, which have boosted Edinburgh’s economy and identity and have rightly earned Ian recognition from the architectural community, including The Lighthouse Achievement Award 2008.

As part of the rebranding of Edinburgh, Ian proposed the creation of a festival of science, to take place in the spring shoulder month of the tourist season, and thereby complement the city’s international arts festival.

It was a visionary idea. Science events at the time were seen as something for scientists and enthusiasts to attend, something for the rest of society to avoid, or at best go to out of a sense of duty.

Ian believed there had to be a seismic shift, to make them a treat for all the family – with a zest and a sparkle that you would expect from an arts festival, or indeed a good football match.

Few people in Edinburgh or anywhere else believed that such a thing would be possible. But Ian put forward the vision with determination and several key organisations backed it. An organisational structure was set up and Howie Firth, a scientist with many years experience of the media and of event organisation, was given the task of putting the idea into practice.

People and groups rallied round, and in April 1989 Edinburgh hosted the world’s first science festival.

City of history, city of science

Under the subsequent direction of first Brian Gamble and then Simon Gage, Edinburgh Science Festival has been developed into a world-class event, whose international recognition fully confirms Ian Wall’s vision.

Ian recently retired, with many achievements that have changed the lives of people and communities for the better, including the redevelopment of Wester Hailes town centre and the Craigmillar regeneration programme. The Edinburgh Park has been described by the British Council of Offices as 'one of the best business parks in Europe'.

And of all his successes, the science festival concept is the one closest to his heart.

'If I have to identify one thing that I’m particularly pleased with, it’s the Edinburgh International Science Festival,' he says. 'It’s now a world wide social movement. We invented something that nobody had thought up before, and so successful has the idea been that there isn’t a continent in the world that doesn’t have science festivals now.'

Creative evolution

Different countries have taken up the idea in different ways, and there is a rich variety of events and venues. Often directors are scientists, but not always, and one of the finest science festivals is in Gothenberg in Sweden, where a director with a skilled arts festival background works with a science advisory board to create a festival with some stunning juxtapositions of art and science.

Amongst the first countries to take up the science festival idea was Slovenia, where the Slovenian Science Foundation recognised the potential of the concept to be part of the overall strategic vision for the national development of science and technology. The Slovenian Science Festival provided a home for innovative Slovenians developing new ideas about science and society, and about the nature of science itself.

There are festivals in Europe from Poland to Portugal, from Belgium to Bulgaria. Europe now has its own Science Events Association – EUSCEA (pronounced ‘you see’).

EUSCEA was formed to exchange ideas and experiences across borders, and is recognised as the European organisation for Science Events. It has 85 members, from 34 different countries. The Highland Science Festival is one of EUSCEA's UK members.

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