On Thursday 31 March 2022, Katherine Mathieson steps down as Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA). In this blog she celebrates some highlights from her tenure and shares insights from the world of science engagement.


To the incoming Chief Executive of the British Science Association,

Congratulations on your new role! How are you feeling? As my last day edges closer, I thought I’d jot down a few notes to help quell any first day butterflies.

A ‘golden age’ for science engagement

I know you have loads of ideas, experience and energy to bring to the organisation.

It is a super exciting time for you to be joining the team. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the climate crisis raging, society needs more from us and our collaborators than ever before. We are poised to step up.

Katherine speaking at a BSA event in 2022

Engaging people with scientists since 1831

I’ve been here a long, long time, it’s true - though not quite since 1831 when the BSA was first established. I think it’s possible to trace our current purpose right back, like an unbroken silver thread, to its founding aims. Even before scientists had been invented (back when they were still ‘natural philosophers’), the BSA enabled the public to meet and hear from them directly.

We have always been focused on what people want and need from science, not what science or scientists need. We often partner with the ‘science world’, and researchers are our greatest allies. But at the end of the day, who we’re here for is the public – and that sets us apart from other organisations in this space. That difference is part of the distinctive value that we can bring.

Working across boundaries

The other thing which makes the BSA distinctive is the variety of people and organisations we are lucky enough to work with:

  • Our extensive community network helps us learn how we can add value to their important work;
  • Our relationships with scientists and researchers from diverse backgrounds help us deliver fantastic engagement and education, sharing it with others;
  • We have a unique ability to platform and champion ‘missing voices’; and
  • We have many links to fantastic organisations outside of ‘science’.

We are fortunate to be able to have the active support of so many organisations within and beyond science.

Our mission adapts to our changing world

A lot has changed since March 2020, let alone since 1831. I think it’s important to re-interpret our mission every few years to reflect the world around us.

Our mission is our most important asset. We don’t have endowments, buildings or land. We don’t have members or professional registrations. We don’t have statutory obligations to look after, educate or treat anyone. Maybe it sounds like we don’t have much, but I think that is one of our greatest strengths – we are driven purely by our purpose.

Our purpose is what attracts people to work for us. Our purpose is the reason that funders and partners choose to work with us. Making sure that everyone can understand and relate to our purpose is one of the most fun parts of this role, actually – seeing the ‘lightbulb’ moment when the person you’re talking to suddenly ‘gets it’, and starts telling their friends about it too.

Attendees at the British Science Festival 2021

Guided by our audiences

I’ve been around for long enough to see loads of new things take off at the BSA. The best ideas nearly always come from the colleagues working with partners and audiences who can see what is needed. The BSA’s best work is done ‘with’ – and not ‘to’ – our target audiences. I think our job is not necessarily to have the ideas but to nurture, protect and champion the ideas that bubble up from our colleagues and partners. And sometimes of course, it’s our job to provide challenge too.

But the best thing is….

…and always has been, the team. They are incredibly passionate, collegiate, talented, dynamic, hard-working, inclusive, patient, and friendly. Everyone has a voice here. You will learn so much from them – I know I did.

Anyway, you will be a fantastic new CEO, I know it. I hope you have a blast!


P.S. If you have any questions, please do get in touch. Unless you want to know how to collapse the standing desk in your office…