For over fifty years, the British Science Association has worked alongside our regional volunteer groups, known as the Branches, to reach a national audience. Each Branch is unique, and the volunteers who run them have worked hard to produce events and activities to suit the needs of their local audiences.

However, following discussions with the British Science Association’s Council in September 2018 and a consultation with Branch volunteers themselves, we have come to realise that changes need to be made to the ways we work with our Branches to allow us to better serve our mission and strategy while allowing Branches more autonomy to decide what events they run and how they are structured. 

At the start of 2019, we began this process and below we explain more about the changes, why they’re happening, and what we hope they’ll lead to.

The history

The Branches are groups of volunteers that organise science-related events for local public audiences. There are currently 36 Branches across the country and their events cover a wide variety of topics in a rich variety of formats, from traditional talks to craft workshops, quizzes and film screenings. Each Branch is unique – they tailor and curate events and activities that suit the needs of their local audiences. Over the past fifty years the British Science Association has managed this network of local Branches, providing support, guidance and resources when needed, and working closely with our volunteers to help them put on the best events possible.

During this time, the Branches have helped mainstream many new science communication formats – such as SciBars and CafeSci – and have made a significant contribution to the growth and professionalisation of the science communication and STEM inspiration sectors. They have collated and shared a wealth of knowledge and experience across the sector and have been at the frontline of science communication.

How will the relationship between the Branches and the BSA change?

Following the consultation in 2018, we have decided to move towards an ‘arms-length’ relationship with our Branches to provide them with more autonomy to make their own decisions about their day-to-day activity.

As each Branch is different, we expect there will be a range of guises these changes will take, however, we are excited that many of our current Branches have decided to become autonomous groups, usually in the form of an unincorporated community association. Going forward, each Branch will be free to choose a new name and governing structure and will no longer need to report back to the BSA on a regular basis.

The rate of change for each Branch will also be different recognising that they are all individual. None of these changes are happening overnight, but in some cases, the transition to a new entity is already underway.

We also recognise, however, that some groups may not want to continue without being formally linked to the BSA. In these cases, we will be supporting the individual volunteers in finding other science engagement opportunities in their area that they can become involved with.

Why has this decision been made?

Since the British Science Association’s Council implemented a new mission and strategy in 2014, we have been creating content and forming partnerships which help us to reach audiences that are currently under-served for science engagement. Several of our Branches have also invested considerable effort in this area and there have been some impressive achievements. However, we’ve learned that it can be an uphill task since it requires a lot of time to build long-term, trusting relationships these audiences – and many Branch volunteers are already very busy.

Also, understandably, many Branches want to continue working with their existing audiences, with whom they have a strong relationship. By becoming autonomous, Branch groups will be free to decide for themselves who they wish to partner with, based on their own interests and on local factors.

How will the new model benefit the Branches and the BSA?

We hope that a more arms-length relationship between the Branches and the BSA will have several benefits. Branches, in their new guise, will be free to adapt the content and format of their events as they wish. They will be able to attract funding aimed at local community organisations. They will no longer need to submit detailed records of their activity to the BSA. They will be able to manage their money more directly, without having to confirm to the monitoring and delegation procedures required by an externally audited registered charity.

Although Branches are effectively grassroots groups with autonomy over their events already, they’re not always seen this way – some Branches have found it difficult to attract interest or funding from organisations who perceive them to be simply a delivery arm of the charity.

One further benefit is that some BSA staff time, currently dedicated to supporting to Branches, could be freed up to enable us to support a wider range of volunteer groups, in line with our new mission and strategy.

Next steps

British Science Association colleagues are currently providing advice to Branch volunteers on the practicalities of the new model and would welcome your suggestions for any resources or sources of support that we can pass on to them.

We are – and always will be – extremely proud of the Branches network. Branch volunteers have dedicated considerable amounts of time and energy to helping other people understand and be entertained by science. Many of the people reached by Branches have limited access to other forms of live science engagement. Branches have made a huge difference to the place of science in UK society, and they have created many, many hours of pleasure for their audiences. We are delighted that most of the Branches will continue delivering brilliant events as autonomous groups, and we will be doing all that we can to support them during this transition period.

If you have any further questions, please get in touch via [email protected].