The Great Dane – Oxfordshire Science Festival Director Speaks to Jude Eades
Tuesday 13th June 2017
Dane Comerford joined us as the new Director of the Oxfordshire Science Festival (OSF) at the start of year. It’s been a busy few months for Dane but now, as the 2017 festival launches, he tells us a little bit about himself and the festival.
Dane, you have been in post now for about five months. What have been the biggest challenges stepping in to the role?
It’s always a challenge staring a new role when the clock is ticking against a hard deadline. Planning a festival is a bit like organising a party but where thousands of people are likely to attend – there’s that question of “Will people come?” Festivals of this sort normally take about a year to plan, especially when research timelines and celebrities’ diaries have to be married together. I feel that we’re in a lucky position though, in that Oxford is brimming with talent from all corners of the city – whether University researchers, directors of small businesses and people from large organisations. And Oxford has that magnetic pull, attracting people who want to be a part of something special. Sometimes the hardest thing is to say no!
What is your main ambition for this year’s festival?
Science festivals have a great pedigree in the UK with many of them now out of their teens – Oxford has had a science festival for over 25 years. I recently spoke at the US Science Festival Alliance conference in Madison Wisconsin. The science festival culture there is a little newer, with many festivals in their fourth or fifth year. A lot of what we’re doing in the UK, in terms of connecting new voices to research and celebrating and challenging innovation is really world-leading, but there’s loads to learn from our friends in America, across the EU and in Asia. Setting the Festival in Oxford against our international comparators (I prefer not to think of festivals as competing with each other) gives us a benchmark to keep developing what we have. My main ambition this year is to get the Oxfordshire Science Festival in a position to take a few bold steps in the near future. Apart from that, I suppose my short-term-goal – hopefully together with several people at this big party we are planning – is to have a great week of exploring ideas and innovation in Oxford.
What event in the OSF programme most excites you?
The Adults Only event should be a good gig – the Town Hall will be open to families during the day on Saturday and Sunday and then grown-ups only on Saturday evening. This is partly because there’ll be a bar, but also because sometimes adults without children, or even those with them, don’t feel comfortable nudging a youngster out of the way to have a go at the hands-on activities.
I’m excited to have several events in the Sheldonian Theatre too. It’s such a lovely space and we’ll be hosting challenging events on cyber security and battlefield warfare and some thought-provoking discussions on science fiction and diet and nutrition. I’m sure that’s what Christopher Wren had in mind when he designed it. Possibly?
The other event I’ve been quite excited about it about the Ladybird Expert Book of Climate Change. This is a short book that might be easy to overlook because of the current trend for notorious Ladybird topics – such as The Hangover, the Mid-Life Crisis or the Hipster. The Climate Change book, however, is a serious piece of non-fiction co-authored by Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh as well as His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. Tony is speaking on the last day of the Festival and although Prince Charles can’t make it, we have been given a special video message to play at the talk. I’ve never worked with Clarence House before and I tell you for free that my mum was somewhat amazed that we’re working with Royalty.
This kind of festival involves collaboration and partnership. How do you keep everyone happy?
Everyone has an agenda, that’s true, but people really want this festival to work. Science Oxford has been really supportive in all sorts of ways, as have both of the Universities and larger research organisations and technology firms. We had a few hairy moments when a high-profile speaker pulled out at the last minute or I thought someone was not going to be able to come, but those problems are consigned to history. One of the most impressive feats of programming was for the Science Fiction event, which got organised in about a day because the speakers and the publishers, Rebellion, simply thought it was a great idea.
Tell us about the Poetry of Science competition you’ve been working on with local schools.
This is something based on an off-the-cuff suggestion from someone while we were having meetings at Diamond and RAL. I spoke to some primary science teachers at a teachers’ conference a few days later who thought it was a great idea, so we ran with it. We got around 400 entries from a couple of dozen Oxfordshire schools and we’ve worked with a poet and a Professor of Poetry to select the winners. Some of the winners will be reading their work alongside professionals at the family hands-on day on Saturday. To have a range of voices share the same platform at Oxfordshire’s Science Festival is exactly what I want to see more of – so look out for next year’s competition!
And are you already thinking about 2018?
In a word, yes. In my view, science is a process of collecting and interpreting knowledge, rather than a collection of subjects like chemistry and mathematics, so I’ve already started to broaden the Oxfordshire Science Festival out to include literature, social sciences and philosophy. The new festival will move to October 2018 and I’ve been thinking about it since before I started the new job. I’m collecting ideas right now! If you look on www.if-oxford.com, you could add what you want to the mix of proposals that get put forward for Oxford’s new innovation, ideas and imagination festival, IF.
Oxfordshire Science Festival, supported by Science Oxford, takes place from 16-21 June featuring talks, workshops, performances and hands-on happenings for all the family.
For details of all events and to book tickets, go to oxfordshiresciencefestival.com.