Natalie Whitehead, co-founder and co-director of Exeter Science Centre, discusses her experience of working with the British Science Association  as a Community Partner during the British Science Festival 2023.


Exeter Science Centre (ESC) was a Partner organisation for the British Science Festival 2023, and co-delivered the Community Grants Scheme. ESC is a charity with a mission to educate, motivate and empower the public to make a difference in the world. We work on projects to connect people with research and industry in the South West related to global issues, and in parallel are working to create a radical new kind of science centre that reimagines the role of science centres in society. 

There are so many community organisations doing fantastic things in and around Exeter. From seed banks to collectives of learning-disabled people, we are constantly inspired by the creative ways these organisations work to make a difference for people and the planet – and the British Science Festival’s (BSF’s) Community Grants Scheme was an invaluable opportunity for us to collaborate with some of these groups. 

As a Festival Partner, and in a new role for 2023, we had the privilege of helping to facilitate these grants. We worked with the BSF team to establish the application process and the criteria for assessing the grants, promoting the grants and guiding the applicants on their proposals, as well as assessing the applications (alongside a broad panel from the BSF, the University of Exeter and the University’s Community Panel) and supporting the grantees on delivering, evaluating and blogging about their projects. This was a new experience for us, being on the “other side of the table” in the grant application process; as a small charity, we're more accustomed to applying for grants and delivering projects ourselves – like the Climate Exhibition 2023, which was the longest-running event at the British Science Festival that year. 

The main aim of the grants was to help underrepresented groups better connect with science in a way that’s relevant to them, which aligns with much of our own work. We were glad to draw on our experience of making science accessible and running events, as well as using our connections to scientists who could support the community groups’ activities – it’s so pleasing to find new ways that we can be useful as an organisation 

Overall, working on this grants scheme was a hugely rewarding opportunity for us, not only by stepping into the shoes of a grant assessor, and making new connections with local community groups – but also by being part of a genuinely equitable grant-making process. It was wonderful to be able to offer guidance to potential applicants on how to meet the grant criteria, and so make their proposals as fundable as they can be; this is such a progressive approach to grant-making, and it’s only one of two examples that we’ve encountered so far. 

A lasting benefit of this experience for us is a deeper understanding of community action in the city where we are establishing ourselves. We aim to create a bold new amalgamation of educational charity, community organisation, cultural hub and tourist attraction, with the aim of reaching people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Our ultimate aim is to empower people to make a difference in the world, and we strongly believe that we need to work together to do this, building a collaborative ecosystem of the public, researchers, industry and organisations working for a better future. By helping to facilitate the community grants scheme, we had a taster of the work and needs of just a small sample of the brilliant organisations operating in our local area. This has reinforced our desire to better connect everyone, as part of the ecosystem that we’re trying to create in the city and region. 

We’re really grateful to the BSF team for this opportunity – and special thanks to Emery and James from the BSF, and Lindsey from the University of Exeter, who have been brilliant to work with throughout the whole experience! 

A word from the British Science Festival Team:

"I want to extend our thanks to Exeter Science Centre for the incredible work they did on the Community Grants Scheme in Exeter. They were integral to connecting with local community groups and the relationships they made and strengthened serve as a legacy of the British Science Festival’s visit to Exeter. As a touring festival, we rely on connection and collaboration with organisations such as the ESC to help reach and support local people who might be underrepresented and underserved in science, maintaining a connection long after the festival has finished. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with them again."

- Emery Howarth, Festival Engagement Manager at the British Science Association

We are currently looking for a Community Grants Partner for the British Science Festival 2024, which will be held in East London on 11 – 15 September, in collaboration with the University of East London.  

Please reach out to Emery at [email protected] for more information.