Ecology + Music = Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll

(July 31st, 2015) Do you like music festivals? Do you enjoy science as well? Ecologists from Lancaster University present the solution: visit their wildflower-meadow-themed stall “Sex & Bugs & Rock 'n Roll” at various music festivals throughout the UK and enjoy ecology as much as you can bear!

No matter whether you're into pop, rock or hip hop, summer festivals across Europe are a good place to satisfy all your live music needs. Every year, thousands of people gather together to enjoy getting together, listening to their favourite bands and sipping on a cold beer. Perhaps some of the festival goers are also thirsty for something else – knowledge. That's what Emma Sayer, lecturer at Lancaster University, thought and soon after, the “Sex, Bugs and Rock'n'Roll” project was born. “I had the idea for 'Sex & Bugs’ during a workshop on public engagement with research after hearing about a project called ‘Einstein at Glastonbury’ for Einstein Year in 2005. I was really excited by the idea because I love going to music festivals and I also believe that science should be accessible to the public, so it seemed like the perfect combination,” Sayer shares with Lab Times.

Sayer contacted Helen Featherstone, part of the 'Einstein at Glastonbury' team, to ask for her opinion. Needless to say, Featherstone was enthusiastic. But what activities could be presented at the stall and where could the necessary funding be found? For the first part, Sayer got together with her colleagues to brainstorm several ideas. The second part, finding money to realise some of those ideas, didn't prove as difficult as expected. “We presented a short proposal to the British Ecological Society (BES) as an event to celebrate the Society’s centenary in 2013 and to our great surprise, the BES funded the project in full. It quickly grew from a one-off event; in 2013, we did 3 music festivals as well as 3 one-day events. It was such a success that the BES decided to continue the project, and this year we have co-funding from the Natural Environment Research Council as part of their 50th anniversary ’summer of science'”.

Sayer says that to take science to the public, it's sometimes necessary to “break away from traditional forms of science communication” like lectures or science fairs. Scientists need to go out and spread the word about science and don't expect people to come to them. “We all love what we do and we wanted to share our passion for ecology in an entertaining way. We also wanted to make ourselves accessible and show that scientists aren’t brainiacs in white coats.”

The projects meant to stimulate festival goers' scientific curiosity involve a live colony of bumblebees; agar plates inoculated with samples taken from shoes, bags, hats, sandwiches or T-shirts (“How gross is your festival kit?”) and interactive games called science busking. “The favourite is definitely the ‘poo game’, where we present festival goers with a tray of replica animal scat and challenge them to match the poo to pictures of the animals. We even have a bonus poo if someone gets them all right the first time. You’d be amazed at how many poo experts there are at festivals!”

On a more serious note, Sayer concludes, “What started out as a collection of crazy ideas has turned into a really amazing project, and one which is incredibly motivating to the researchers and students involved. As researchers, we’re used to being constantly scrutinised and criticised – manuscripts get rejected and proposals are turned down – but our visitors at festivals are really excited and pleased to meet scientists and be able to ask questions or just have a chat with us. It’s really motivating to see how interested and fascinated people are and we’re frequently thanked and congratulated by our visitors. Everyone on the festival team has also been able to talk to people about their research - even if the activities have nothing to do with their particular study area – because the fun games and interactions provide openings for questions and conversation. This is a really important result, because so many researchers think it is hard to make their science more accessible.”

Nadejda Capatina

Photos: S&B&R team; group: Emma Sayer (second from the right) and the organising team 2013; check them out on Twitter: @BESroadies 

Last Changes: 09.15.2015