The British Science Association (BSA) was founded in 1831, as the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS).

The first meeting was held in York on 26 September 1831; the first of a series of annual meetings that continued, broken only in some of the war years, for over 150 years. The annual meetings later evolved into the British Science Festival

The Association inspired the formation of similar associations for the advancement of science in other countries, as well as local scientific societies in Britain. The custom of holding annual meetings in a wide number of cities in the UK led to the foundation, for example, of the Edinburgh Geological Society; the 1855 meeting in Glasgow was followed by the founding of the Glasgow Geographical Society; the Norwich meeting of 1868 by the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, and so on. 

In addition to its annual meetings, the BAAS was at the forefront of the development of scientific literature, recognising that there was a need for reports on the state of science to be drawn up by experts “in order that those who pursue one branch of science may know how to communicate with the enquirer in another and so that scientific students may know where to begin their labours”.

The membership of the BAAS was diverse: welcoming individuals from across scientific, political, military, religious, and literary fields. The Association sponsored projects in a broad range of fields, including astronomy, anthropology, and engineering.

However, the early history of the organisation must be viewed in the context of Victorian Britain – including prevailing views on gender, class and ethnicity; and the expansion of the empire. We acknowledge that many of the people associated with the BAAS will have held views that are now outdated and incompatible with our values today and/or where the scientific consensus has moved on.

Between 2020 and 2022, we undertook a period of reflection on the organisation’s heritage and identity; in particular, looking at how we might use the past to inform and improve our current and future work. Out of this process, we have developed a set of Guiding Principles which will inform our practice, programmes, and communications in the future.

Read our Guiding Principles (opens in new tab)

Reflecting on or Heritage & Identity: an overview (opens in new tab)

The BSA today

While the founding principles of the BSA – "to bring together a more diverse range of views and opinions" and "to create better access to science for more people" – mirror our purpose today, the context has changed.

The BSA today is a charity committed to ensuring that science is more relevant, representative, and connected to society; working through a range of programmes in education, community-led engagement, grant-making, public-facing events and campaigns; and stakeholder influencing.

We have a particular focus on equality, diversity and inclusion in science, because the science sector in the UK is not representative of society and many people (around two in ten) believe that science is not for them.

The BSA is seeking to catalyse change both internally within our organisation and within the wider science sector, to make science more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. A more diverse science sector that represents all of society will return better results for science and society.

Our archive 

The majority of the British Science Association’s archive is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, including formal papers, minute books and reports related to our Annual Meetings.

There is also the Wiley Digital Archives of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, are available here (license required).

The British Association: A Retrospect by O J R Howarth. The first edition, published in 1922 covers the years 1831-1922; a second edition published to coincide with the British Science Association’s centenary in 1931 covers the hundred years from 1831-1931.

To mark the BSA’s sesquicentenary in 1981, two books were published:

The Parliament of Science, Editors Roy Macleod and Peter Collins, Science Reviews Ltd, London; and Gentlemen of Science, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackeray, Oxford.