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Cambridge prepares for Science Festival launch

Do scientist or the media decide what science we see? Can we prepare for and manage climate change? How can we reinvent ourselves for the future? Will we survive as a species?

Cambridge Science Festival gets ready to answer some of our biggest questions around healthcare, technology, climate change and the future of humanity with a host of free events during the two-week science extravaganza – which begins in one week and runs until 24th March.

To kickstart the Festival, scientific reporting comes under scrutiny in Science in the spotlight on 11th  March, the first day of the Festival. Most of us find out about scientific advances and their consequences through the media. Who decides what science we see and how can we promote informed debate in public and government? Are scientific controversies the result of poor reporting or are scientists also responsible? Chaired by Tim Radford with Fiona Fox, Science Media Centre; Rebecca Asher, Sense about Science; Julian Huppert, Intellectual Forum Jesus College; Chandrika Nath, SCAR Executive Director; Jane Gregory, University of Cambridge.

In December 2018, Genomics England in partnership with NHS England reached their milestone goal of sequencing 100,000 genomes. The UK became the first nation in the world to apply whole genome sequencing at scale in healthcare – one of the most important technology breakthroughs. With all 100,000 genomes now sequenced, Dr David Bentley, Chief Scientist at Illumina, and Professor Mark Caulfield, Interim Chief Executive and Chief Scientist at Genomics England, discuss how this promises to revolutionise the way we practise medicine during the event 100,000 genomes project: transforming precision healthcare on 13th March. 

Global warming is one of humanity’s most pressing concerns. On 14th March, a panel of leading experts look at how a long-term perspective, often lacking in policy debate, is essential for understanding present and future global warming in The long-term perspective of climate change. Professors Ulf Büntgen, Mike Hulme, Christine Lane, Hans W Linderholm, Clive Oppenheimer, Baskar Vira, and Paul J Krusic explore how we investigate the past, what we have learned from having a long-term perspective, and the challenges faced in applying this knowledge to the policy making process. They discuss natural climate change, why we should continue investing in the study of past climate variability, and how we manage our way through current and future climate changes. 

Also on 14th March, Dr Jennifer Cobbe examines how the internet has become a battleground for electoral politics in The public sphere in the age of the algorithm. She explains how surveillance capitalism, machine learning techniques applied to personal data, and the irresponsible use of (algorithmic) recommender systems – the technical systems used for targeted advertising online – have created a hotbed for disinformation, manipulation and political bots. These issues limit the ability of authorities, journalists, academics, and everybody else to properly scrutinise what is really going on. “They lead to the formation of filter bubbles and contribute to echo chambers, they help undermine what’s left of shared social and political reality, they carry targeted advertising, and they allow disinformation to be disseminated to larger audiences than it would otherwise reach. There is, at present, no regulation of their use, and regulatory interventions could potentially greatly limit the harms to which they contribute,” Dr Cobbe stated.

Dr Cobbe’s explores her existing research projects in this area – in particular, on surveillance capitalism – and how the law might respond to the use of recommender systems on various internet services.

On 15th March, Professor Andrea Brand and her group discuss a new type of stem cell with greater potential for repairing the brain during In conversation with the Brand Group at the Gurdon Institute. Also, Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya and Dr Matthew Holmes examine the hostility towards genetically modified crops in GM crops: getting to the root of the issues. They ask how we came to see the plant genome as a series of distinct parts, to be removed, added or altered at will.  

The 19th March sees three key events deal with our future, our past and the plans we need to put in place to ensure our survival. In the Reluctant futurist award-winning best-selling author Mark Stevenson takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the good, the bad and the ugly of the next 30 years. Old models – for healthcare, education, food production, energy supply and government – are creaking under the weight of modern challenges. How can we re-invent ourselves for the future? In Tree rings at the interface of archaeology, climatology and ecology, Professor Ulf Büntgen discusses how ancient trees help us understand what to expect from climate change and whether the recent warming is unusual. He introduces new research findings, including how the discovery of the oldest tree-ring samples, dating back more than 14,000 years, is helping our understanding of climate changes in the late glacial period. Healthcare quality and safety also comes under scrutiny when the Director of The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute (THIS Institute), Professor Mary Dixon-Woods looks at the challenges to Improving quality and safety in healthcare. Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief of The British Medical Journal leads an interview-style Q&A following the talk.

Commenting on the challenges faced by health services, Professor Dixon-Woods, said: “A strong evidence base for making improvement in health systems is much needed, but it has been far too slow to build. I propose that instead of just trying to do improvement, we need also to study it. To avoid waste, duplication of effort, and new risks, it’s important that we learn what works, what doesn’t and why. That means a real commitment to evaluation and to recognising the wisdom and expertise of NHS staff, patients and carers in generating evidence that matters.”

In addition to changing how we manage healthcare, humanity's prospects depend on our taking a different approach to planning for tomorrow warns Astronomer Royal, Professor Lord Martin Rees in his talk On the future: prospects for humanity on 22nd March. He looks at how advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence – if pursued and applied wisely – could empower us to boost the developing and developed world and overcome the threats humanity faces on Earth, from climate change to nuclear war.


Further events to look out for at this year’s Festival:

  • Five things about genetics everyone should know (14 March) From human disease and intellectual ability, ethnicity and race to sex and our origins, Dr Ewan Birney (Director of EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute and non-executive Director of Genomics England) and colleagues, discuss the five things that everyone should know about genetics.
  • Transformation and mind: using science to fight mental illness (15 March) Mental illness has dramatic effects on individuals, their families and communities. Professor Peter Jones tells us how clinical and population studies can be integrated with health services to promote mental health well-being.
  • Bits and pieces: secrets of the digital world (16 March) The world sends more messages today than ever before. And those messages are in code. This may not be surprising, but even those codes contain more secrets than you realise. Mathematician, Dr James Grime reveals how film studios know if you are sharing movies illegally, how to hide a secret message on the internet in plain sight, and the ingenious maths within a CD that allows it to keep playing.
  • Game of bones (16 March). Dr Matt Wilkinson charts the battle for supremacy between two great animal dynasties, dinosaurs and mammals: one that created the living world as we know it.
  • Gut reaction (18 March) Dr Ewan St. John Smith and Dr James Hockley teamed up with DragonLight Films to produce a short film that explores how gut function goes wrong, the impact it has on peoples’ lives and how scientists and clinicians are working to better treat those affected. A panel discussion with leading experts follows the film.
  • Discoveries leading to new treatments for dementia (18 March). Professor Giovanna Mallucci, Associate Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute discusses how research is transforming our understanding of what makes brain cells go wrong in dementia and degenerative brain diseases, and how these insights may lead to new treatments.
  • Engineering biology everywhere: expanding access to the most important technology of our age (20 March). Dr Jenny Molloy explores how open-source technologies and community efforts are enabling biological research by more people in more places than ever before.
  • Can smartphone apps help people change their behaviour? (24 March) Behavioural Scientist, Professor Stephen Sutton describes research conducted on novel ways of using smartphone apps to help people make positive lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and eating a healthier diet.
  • The origins of cancer: what's in our genes and what isn't? (24 March) Ashok Venkitaraman, Professor of Cancer Research at the MRC Cancer Unit discusses how recent research is providing new insights and how this new knowledge might be used to detect or even prevent cancer.


Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here

Bookings can be made here or by calling the Festival on 01223 766 766 between 11am and 3pm.

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #CamSciFest.


Cambridge Science Festival brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. Run by the University of Cambridge, the Festival draws together independent organisations in addition to many University Departments, Centres and Museums. The majority of events are free.

Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust. Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.