Culture of curiosity is key for science and innovation

23 Aug 2013

The Festival of Curiosity co-founders Ellen Byrne and Vincent McCarthy with The BBC Science Club Panel. (Left to right) Dara Ó Briain, Alok Jha, Aoife McLysaght, Ellen Byrne, Emma Teeling, Ian Robertson, Shane Bergin and Vincent McCarthy

Ellen Byrne was a driving force behind Dublin’s first Festival of Curiosity last month, and she wants to build a culture of curiosity in Dublin over the next decade. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about the importance of the right environment for innovation to grow.

“We thought the festival would be big, but we didn’t expect it to be as big as it turned out to be,” says Byrne when we meet at Dublin’s Science Gallery.  

The four-day festival, which ran last month in Dublin, featured a cornucopia of events linked by the common thread of curiosity. They included talks, plays, workshops, Dublin’s Mini-Maker Faire and a live version of the BBC’s Science Club, where comedian Dara Ó Briain, journalist Alok Jha and various Irish scientists got to grips with scientific issues and threw in a few hair-raising experiments to boot.

But that’s just the start of it, according to Byrne, who along with festival co-founder Vince McCarthy has a grander vision of building an environment where people can pique and satisfy their curiosity. 

Hungry for science

Their idea grew out of working with ESOF 2012 and Dublin City of Science, she explains. “We got to see first hand that there was an appetite here for science, and there was always talk about the need for a legacy from those events, so to make that happen we put together some ideas.”

Those ideas developed into a 10-year strategy to build up a culture of curiosity in Dublin and beyond. “The plan is to create an environment where people have the confidence, courage and opportunity to be curious,” says Byrne. “So we pitched it and got the go-ahead for support through our founding partners Dublin City Council, Matheson, The RDS and Science Foundation Ireland.”

Fast-forward to July and Byrne was in the thick of running the festival, shuttling between Smock Alley and other venues and ensuring everything went smoothly. Star turns included a performance of Stella, a play about the unsung astronomer Caroline Herschel (sister of William), and a spellbinding talk by Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell about her role in discovering pulsars. 

Those who attended the events may not have been aware of it, but the aim behind this first tranche of annual festivals was to build up the confidence to be openly curious, according to Byrne, who is creative director of the initiative.

“We want to create an environment where people can ask questions, and play with things and do things,” she says. “If you are a parent and your child asks is why is the sky blue – do you make something up? Tell a joke? Tell them to go away? Or do you look it up and find out how it works? It’s the confidence to find stuff out.”

The impact of curiosity

Byrne herself became curious about the impact of curiosity when she spent several months working in a lab during her undergraduate degree studies in pharmacology at University College Dublin. “I was surrounded by PhD students and post-docs who were doing their research for years, and I saw that curiosity had to be a big driver for them,” she recalls. 

After completing her degree, Byrne went to work in healthcare market research in London, where trips to the Science Museum further ignited her curiosity about science. She returned to Dublin in 2008. “It was an exciting time,” she says. “The Science Gallery was just opening up, Dublin City of Science was being discussed, and the Exploration Station was still in the works at that point, too.” 

So she completed a MSc in science communication at Dublin City University and got involved in Dublin City of Science – and that in turn led to the festival, which aims to draw people in and get involved even though they may not be explicitly interested in science, explains Byrne. 

“A lot of science can be very shiny and futuristic and I would think it’s intimidating for some people,” she says. “So we came up with the Curiosity Carnival as part of the festival – a workshop that’s like a giant kitchen table where kids would come in and play and at first parents would stand back but then they would get involved, too. This is about creating environments where people can do things.”

Festival of Curiosity in future

Plans are now afoot to bring a mobile version of the workshop into local communities: “The festival in the middle of the summer does one thing, it brings families in, but we also want to go to people who might not make that trip, to build a positive and fun association with new technologies, like 3D printing, and to build digital literacy,” says Byrne. 

Meanwhile, the festival team, including artists-in-residence Niamh Shaw and Úna Kavanagh from That’s About the Size of It, already have their thinking caps on for next year’s summer festival and beyond. The next two years will continue to build up confidence, explains Byrne, then the following three years will encourage people to have the courage to ask hard questions and the last segment of the plan aims to build a platform where people have the opportunity to feed into science strategy. 

And at the heart of it all lie three little words: “We say the three best words in the English language are ‘I don’t know’ – so how do you find out about it? You need the tools to know where to go from here, I think science gives you those tools and hopefully the festival will create an environment where people can develop and use them.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication