Since 2017, the Making Connections grant scheme, supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has enabled UK Science Festivals Network (UKSFN) members to develop their approaches to engaging underrepresented audiences with research and researchers, through community partnerships.

Anna Woolman, outgoing Engagement Manager at the British Science Association (BSA), reflects on the programme’s work as the scheme enters its sixth year.

Read on to learn how to apply for a 2022 Making Connections grant.

2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic

We were in the throes of launching the Making Connections grant scheme for the fourth year when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

Initially, we went ahead with the programme as we had done in previous years – but included the need for ‘contingency’ plans in the guidelines, should in-person events and activities be unable to go ahead. Honestly – it’s quite funny when you look back at it. Everyone was hopeful that by Autumn 2020, or at least early 2021, things would have returned to ‘normal’.

During this time, it was becoming clear that community organisations were being hugely stretched and needed support.

A core part of this scheme is for festivals to work alongside community groups to develop projects that are relevant and responsive. So naturally, we were thinking: Could festivals use this funding to give support, in some way, during this increasingly turbulent time? Previous interviews with community partners suggested so – even if it was just providing a welcome distraction for their audience.

People were also beginning to shift content online, many exploring the digital realm for the first time. As a funder, we also saw this as an opportunity to encourage festivals to innovate in this area with researchers for underrepresented audiences.

We encouraged applicants to consider issues of digital poverty when crafting their projects, but ‘zoom fatigue’ was not something we’d all become aware of yet. The latter was going to prove much more challenging for project delivery over the coming year. While digital access can largely be overcome with products and materials, digital fatigue cannot.

By Autumn 2020, a handful of projects seemed to be thriving while others were struggling to find their feet. As programme manager, with the majority of the Engagement Team only just returning from furlough and having worked on this project in isolation for so long, I was starting to worry and doubt myself.

I was having regular calls with project organisers who were concerned about their abilities to deliver anything. I tried to be encouraging and provide advice – I did truly believe that they would be able to do something – but I was also concerned. What if most of the festivals weren’t able to deliver? How would this make me, the BSA and the science festival sector look?

In hindsight, if this had been the case, people would have understood. We were going through a global pandemic. No one could predict what the next day, week or month could bring. We were all exhausted, but still trying to be optimistic.

Supporting grant recipients

I sometimes felt like an overbearing parent with lots of emails ‘checking in’ (I came to hate that phrase), but hopefully, it helped people know that someone was there and rooting for them in a year where we felt so isolated and, at times, hopeless. Reflecting back on that time now, I don’t think that there would have been the level of delivery if we had not been having those conversations.  

I am so glad that we can be open and honest with each other about any issues we’re having – evidenced by the openness of grant recipients in our ‘UKSFN learning curves’ blog series. I think it is also a testament to this funding scheme, of which flexibility and support are increasingly at its core. It’s become apparent to me that these things can’t be overlooked when it comes to people leaving their comfort zone, experimenting, having successes and, importantly, failures.

This is why for 2022 we are partnering with the FailSpace project to support grant recipients to critically reflect on their projects through the lens of ‘failure’. FailSpace is based on the principle that learning from failure should be an integral part of the process of making and implementing cultural projects and policies.

Listening, learning and growth

This programme is ambitious in that it seeks to impact not only audiences, but festival organisers, researchers and community organisations involved. As such, evaluation has played a big part.

As the programme has evolved over the years, the focus shifted from quantity to quality, and with it, audience sizes naturally decreased. In turn, ways of collecting feedback from programme participants needed to change. We wanted to understand more about the people getting involved and their experiences. You can’t get this from a standard tick-box evaluation form.

As lockdown rules were lifted in 2021, we were able to meet and speak to everyone involved – from audiences to researchers and community partners. Here’s a summary of feedback and quotes from the interviews:

What’s next?

As I look to 2022, I’ve been reflecting on what ‘innovation’ means. We are constantly being asked to produce ‘innovative’ projects. While the word typically conjures images of technology and fantastical new activities, we can get weighed down with worrying about if something is ‘exciting’ enough on paper. But for me, and this programme, I’ve realised the most exciting type of innovation involves exploring new ways of working, truly letting go of egos and learning about ourselves and others in the process.

The last two years of this programme have been the perfect example of this. While projects have seen many setbacks, many organisers have been able to really reflect on how they collaborate with community partners, put aside their agendas and develop projects that focus on the community’s priorities. I think that’s innovative, and exciting, in its own right.

Increasingly, I’m seeing projects that value taking the time to turn up and be there with communities – the foundations of genuine relationship building. The importance of this in my experience, is largely underappreciated - but it doesn’t have to be, and in this programme, we are committed to ensuring it isn’t. As a sector, we need to advocate for and support this way of working – especially if there is a true commitment to empowering more people to see science and research as for them.

Applications for the 2022 Making Connections grant scheme are now open to UKSFN members. Up to £8,000 is available for projects bringing researchers and underrepresented audiences together through community partnerships. The deadline is 16 May.

Find out more about joining the UKSFN here.

If you have any questions or comments, get in touch with [email protected].