In 2012, neuroscientist Praveen Paul co-founded Pint of Science, an annual worldwide science festival that brings researchers to local pubs, bars, cafes and community spaces to share and discuss their scientific discoveries with the public through informal talks. The festival takes place over three days in May and, from its beginnings in the United Kingdom in 2013, has spread to hundreds of cities in 26 countries. This year, it will run from 22 to 24 May. Nature talked to Paul about her experiences in setting up and running the festival.
What is Pint of Science and what does it do?
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Pint of Science showcases scientific research to the public through opportunities to chat with those carrying out the work. As well as events in pubs, bars and cafes, we’ve had art–science events in churches, talks on boats and mountain huts and even a live link-up to the International Space Station.
Collection: Science communication
The events are organized by volunteers who study or work in science, with small teams of organizers in each country. Pint of Science is a non-profit organization, and in the United Kingdom, it’s funded by ticket sales, sponsorship and support from around 45 participating institutions. As director, I ensure that it runs smoothly — answering e-mails from the public, managing and supporting teams of volunteers, dealing with sponsors, doing the accounts, maintaining the website and even shipping merchandise from my house. It might look big, but it has a very small operational base supported by thousands of volunteers worldwide.
Who’s in your audiences?
At first, most of our audiences worked in science in some capacity and heard about events by word of mouth. But now we have shifted: we have more people who left science after school or didn’t think science was for them. We encourage the presenters to show items they use in the laboratory and to share their personal stories. This fosters discussion and shows the human side of research. Audience members often buy speakers a drink and carry on chatting with them long after the event. They sometimes ask searching questions that provide speakers with new ideas, or give good suggestions that bridge disciplines and help researchers to collaborate in new ways.
Having now run thousands of events, we’ve seen trends in the research chosen by the organizers. In the United Kingdom, a wave of events about plastics in the ocean (2017) was followed by some about artificial intelligence and machine learning (2018), then personalized medicine (2019) and, more recently, vaccines and COVID-19. Overall, audiences are now much more interested in Earth and the climate than they were a few years ago.
We are looking to increase inclusion and diversity. We aim to provide training for all volunteers so we consider these factors when choosing our teams, speakers, venues and topics.
What gave you the idea for the first Pint of Science?
My co-founder Michael Motskin and I met at Imperial College London as postdoctoral researchers. I was investigating genes involved in motor neuron disease and he was looking at using nanoparticles to deliver drugs to the brain for Parkinson’s disease. In 2012, we organized an event that brought people with various neurological conditions and their families into our labs to see the research being carried out. The event left its mark on us. We thought why not bring scientists to the people, using public spaces such as pubs, bars and cafes? It wasn’t a new idea, but we gave it a twist — we planned our events to take place simultaneously over three days and inspired by how music festivals are run, where you choose what stage to head to.
Plenty of people thought it wouldn’t work, but we were fuelled by enthusiasm and naivety. We had no experience of science communication, running events, building websites or even of talking to academic colleagues about research outside our fields.
How did Pint of Science change your career path?
The first event was a success. Michael and I had come to the end of our postdocs and were unemployed. We didn’t want to stay in academia, so we decided to see how far we could take the idea. It soon became clear that Pint of Science could not be run as a hobby or without us getting paid, as it was all-consuming. So I went straight from being a postdoc to a full-time director of a science festival — up a very steep learning curve.
From 2013 to 2019, we grew from hosting 45 events in the United Kingdom to around 600 there and 3,000 elsewhere. The rapid growth was exciting, but stressful — we had to turn a project run by a handful of friends into a professional organization. I was redefining who I was and questioning whether it was worth it, but I also acquired skills such as marketing, accountancy, negotiation and people and project management. The work was relentless, but the support and enthusiasm of the team helped us move forward, including from our international director, neuroscientist Élodie Chabrol, based in Paris, who brought more countries on board.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the festival?
The pandemic brought everything to an abrupt stop, and because we rely on ticket sales for our basic finance, we were unsure whether Pint of Science could recover. It meant several years of no income — a worrying time, especially because from May 2020 I was running the UK arm of the festival on my own. We had some leftover finance from 2019 and I took on other jobs, including as a freelance web manager for scientific companies and a consultant to a local non-profit community co-working space.
About two-thirds of the countries involved ran free online events in 2020 and 2021, which gave our organizers some fun amid lockdown. In 2020, an online event about race and science with Esther Odekunle, an antibody engineer at AbCellera in Vancouver, Canada, and a campaigner for greater diversity in science, and with Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019), attracted more than 2,500 viewers.
Most countries returned to in-person events by May 2022, but some could no longer run them because people had moved on to other jobs or the infrastructure was no longer there. In some places, we are having to start again from scratch. We’ve noticed that audiences now tend not to book until the last minute, making it more difficult to plan, and it’s harder to recruit new organizers and speakers. But we’re busy planning this year’s festivals and hoping to rebuild for the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.