To Anyone Who Speaks at Science Festivals

A blog by Simon Singh & Richard Wiseman

We have been discussing the finances of science festivals for several months, between ourselves and with others, and recently we met the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals to raise our concerns. Given Philip Pullman’s recent statement on the finances of literary festivals, we thought now was a good time to publish a blog about science festivals in general and the Cheltenham Science Festival in particular. While Philip Pullman has highlighted the lack of payment for authors, our main concern is high ticket prices, but the two problems are both clearly related.

In the past we have been very supportive of The Cheltenham Science Festival, and we have spoken at the festival several times.  However, we are now increasingly concerned about the financial model underpinning the Festival.

Tickets for many talks and events now cost in the region of £8-£10 (plus the £3 online booking fee). A quick look at last year’s weekend lectures show that only a small fraction of events were less than £8 per ticket.

Given that the biggest Festival venue has 650 seats and three others have about 300 seats, many events generate large sums of money. In addition, there is revenue from festival and event sponsorship, and some percentage from book sales (always sold at full price).  Moreover, the festival benefits from a large team of unpaid volunteers, and speakers who are paid just a nominal fee of £100.

We appreciate that there are costs associated with running a festival, but none of these justify such high ticket prices.  A festival that was started to promote science seems to have re-invented itself as big business, taking advantage of both speakers and audiences. By comparison, the Cambridge Festival offers dozens of high quality events, and the overwhelming majority are entirely free.

With 40 years’ experience between us of giving public science talks, it strikes us that the Cheltenham  Science Festival is being run in a hugely inefficient manner. Our feeling is that something needs to change. With a new director in place, there is a real opportunity for a new way forward. Our proposal is that no event should  that cost more than £7 (£5 concession), and that the majority of events should be £5 (£4 concession) or less.

It would also help if the Festival bookshop stopped exploiting people and offered discounts of at least 10% discount to ticket holders.

This would mean that events are more accessible and audiences are not over-charged. We met with the CEO of Cheltenham Festivals, Louise Emerson, in December, in order to raise our concerns and discuss our proposals. Her view seems to be that it is necessary to charge such high ticket prices in order to break even, but we are hoping that she will review the situation.

If the Cheltenham Science Festival retains its current model, then audiences might think twice about supporting expensive events and sponsors should consider backing out from events that take advantage of the goodwill of speakers and audiences.

If we are approached to speak next year, and if prices remain high and books are not discounted, then our approach will be as follows:

(1) we will negotiate our ticket prices down to £7, or we will not participate. One of us succeeded in 2014 in reducing our ticket price from £12 down to £7, and we know that in 2015 at least one speaker persuaded the Festival to reduce tickets from £10 to £7. There is absolutely no reason why the public should be charged more than £7 to watch a talk that they could attend elsewhere at half the price or for free.

(2) we will encourage the audience to buy books in advance and sign them at the end of the lecture.  In 2014, one of us offered to sign event tickets that could be pasted into books bought later at a discount online shop, such as www.hive.co.uk (which supports local independent book shops).

If you speak at science festivals for free or for a nominal fee, then we would encourage you to follow our perfectly reasonable approach. If you allow the Cheltenham Science Festival (or, indeed, other festivals) to charge £8 or more for your event, then the public will be losing out, and so will you, as there will be more empty seats. On the other hand, if you stand your ground and ask for reduced ticket prices, then it is very likely that expensive science festivals will very rapidly realise that they have a responsibility to make their events more accessible. Our goal is that Cheltenham can evolve and lead by example, creating a new model that other science festivals will follow.

The message is simple. If speakers are being a paid a nominal fee of £100 and sponsors are subsidising events, then there is no reason why the public should be paying excessive prices for tickets.

(Update – the original article stated that only 4 out of 32 weekend events cost less than £8 per ticket. This figure has been hard to pin down, but it is clear that only a small fraction of lectures cost less than £8 per ticket.)

By Simon Singh & Richard Wiseman

12 thoughts on “To Anyone Who Speaks at Science Festivals

  1. Andy Brice

    I have been to the Cheltenham Festival and I wondered about the ticket prices. They did seem excessive for an hour in a tent. When you have a family attending several talks, it really starts to add up.

    Reply
  2. Simon Emms

    I completely agree.

    I live in Cheltenham and one of the attractions is the Festivals (the same company puts on the Literature and Jazz Festivals). It seems that the tickets prices are broadly the same for all the events.

    As an aside, Prof Brian Cox recently gave a lecture as part of a tour at Cheltenham Town Hall (separate company, but it’s the main venue of the Science Festival) and the tickets to that were £40 each. Considering that A list comedians and a support act performing there are usually £15-£30, £40 for a bloke being interviewed about science seemed really expensive.

    The event sold out, so clearly I’m in a Cheltonian minority…

    Reply
  3. H E Courtney

    I have attended the Cheltenham Science Festival for very many years. When I lived in Cheltenham, I could go in the week, when prices are a bit lower. Now I have moved to Somerset, I can manage only the weekend and that includes travel. I do have to limit what lectures I can go to because of cost. When I get this year’s brochure, ( I am on the mailing list), I will have to consider whether I can afford it again this year.

    Reply
  4. Alistair

    I attend as many events as I can but have to limit myself due to cost. Cheltenham is the only one I go to and so have not been able to compare costs. They always claim that ticket prices do not cover their costs and ask for an extra voluntary donation. I recall someone signing a ticket sub last year and suggesting buying a book elsewhere.

    I will have to seriously consider what I do this year.

    Reply
  5. John Read

    Cheltenham is a fantastic festival with a great atmosphere and mixed age audience.

    I agree that over the last few years the ticket prices have crept up, to a point at which they must disuade attendance by those less well off.

    I had the benefit of listening to Simon’s Simpsons talk at Skeptics in the pub with a much more reasonable £3-5 pay what you can afford style donation.

    £8 – £10+ Is definitely steep for a 1 hour talk.

    I hope Cheltenham take note and will do more to keep their event prices affordable for all.

    Reply
  6. Mel Osborne

    I agree that ticket prices are steep, especially if you want to take the family. I paid for tickets last year, however my family and I also enjoyed a full day of entirely free activities too. We even got to keep the flakes of gold we panned! So it would be great if tickets were cheaper, but money is not a barrier to participation.

    Reply
  7. Fay Dowker

    I am a physicist and give many public talks and I welcome this discussion. I hope people
    who take part in public engagement activities will think about this issue. I want to draw attention to daylong events that are run by New Scientist called “Instant Expert” which cost 149 pounds
    per person to attend.
    http://www.reedbusiness.com/news/new-scientist-launches-instant-expert/
    I have been invited to speak at two of them and have declined because of the
    ticket price which puts the events totally out of reach for most people. New Scientist is a publication of Reed Elsevier (RELX) whose adjusted operating profit in 2014 was over £1.7 billion and Reed Elsevier’s academic publishing activity is being boycotted by many academics (http://thecostofknowledge.com/). The question of whether to participate in such events will depend on personal circumstance. People should be paid fairly for their work. I have an academic job at a university so I am in a position to choose what public engagement events I participate in and I am able to consider such activities part of my job. For me, therefore, my view that scientific knowledge belongs to everyone was incompatible with talking about my work at an event that cost nearly 600 pounds for a family of 4.

    Reply
  8. Barry

    I have a question:

    what about skeptic events?

    Many of them (including upcoming NECSS and ones in places like Sydney and Las Vegas) are charging +$100 an event. Are these subject to criticism for their cost too?

    They too depend on unpaid volunteers. They too have big names featured and expect people to pay for what at one event meant a number of said big name presenters not showing up as scheduled — and a hurriedly put together ‘lecture’ on how a chicken was a dinosaur and a weird egotistical slideshow on how stupid psychics were and how great skeptics were in comparison as sub-par fillers. The disappointment of that made me avoid those events in the future but now you say that science events should be better run, then why not those too?

    Reply
    1. Simon Singh Post author

      1. I don’t think any event is beyond criticism – your comment is very welcome. Why not post a full blog on the subject?
      2. You refer to the cost of NECSS – it seems cheap to me. $75 for students & $235 everyone else for 3 days, and maybe 20+ events/lectures. In New York. Probably with very limited commercial sponsorship, and several speakers flying thousands of miles. Compare this to $20 to see one talk by me in Cheltenham.
      3. A badly organised event is exactly that. You have my sympathy. However, I have attended TAMs in London, Sydney and Vegas (2), QED in Manchester (3) & NECSS and each one has been excellently organised.

      Reply
  9. Emily

    This is interesting! I have actually volunteered for the whole week last year at the festival. I’m not sure how much Brian gets or Alice roberts gets but I do know that the event is amazing. I know you may think I have a biased view but listen up. Yes I did volunteer and no I didn’t get paid but I did get my travel paid for and I did get my accommodation paid for and money for the week for food. I also got to make great contacts, meet some of my heroes and spend a week gaining valuable science communication and events experience ( who can say they sat in a hotel bar with Brian cox?!). I am a phd student and being able to get experience in a short space of time whilst studying is vital…. so don’t feel sorry for me!!… know that’s out of the way…. I know that the prices are high but let’s put it into perspective, this is educational but it’s also a festival/ an experience, and you have to be willing to pay for an experience. People are willing to spend up to £200 for a glasto ticket or £50 to go a see Adele so why should this be any different if you’re passionate about science and your idol is Brian? What’s the issue, let’s face it a cinema ticket now is roughly £10 and theatre tickets are usually £18 up. Are you saying you don’t learn anything from theatre, a music festival or from the cinema? Why aren’t people outraged these are not subsidised then!
    The festival team have to be paid and have to have competitive salaries to attract the best candidates, all the marques have to be bought and put up and then there’s lighting and sound, also lots of free events that are presumably subsidised by the paying ones, and of course giant dinosaurs to construct. That’s where the money is, I think possibly you should think about all of that before you decide if you’re not getting paid enough for speaking. Although I agree that science should be accessible we should also realise that some of these events are niche and for people who would save up all year to come and see a science event that has great craftsmanship, thought and is essentially novel, so don’t deprive the geeks!

    Reply
    1. Simon Singh Post author

      Hello Emily,
      Thanks for your thoughts. It is good to hear from someone who works with the festival. However, IMHO you are missing the point.
      1. It is not about speakers fees. The issue is that speakers don’t give their time for almost free in order for the public to be charged exhorbitant prices. Speakers are not looking for more money, but rather we are lobbying for fairer ticket prices. (When I say WE, I mean Richard and myself. It would be good if other speakers entered the discussion.)
      2. It is great that you can afford to volunteer. Leaving aside the fact that many others cannot afford to volunteer, i don’t think volunteers give up their time so that the public are charged £10/ticket.
      3. You make comparisons with Adele and Glasto, but these are businesses, they are not massively subsidised and they do not rely on performers who work for £100.
      Please do stop and chat to me about this if our paths ever cross. I am sure there are many other points that we could discuss.

      Reply
      1. Emily

        I would like to point out I do not represent the festival or its views.
        I understand where you are coming from but without any facts and figures how can you really tell where the money is going and make the assumption that they are rolling in the profit.
        I believe anyone can afford to volunteer for them! it is not for the privileged few. I have seen people on benefits, to people who work in the airforce to people who have normal 9-5 jobs and of course retired people. I myself took annual leave and did it as my holiday this year (dedication i know!). I’m sure those who have a job could do the same and those who do not could still recieve their benefits and so can still do it, as anything extra is payed for by the festival, like travel and accommodation. The only limiting factor would be if you needed childcare or a dog sitter but these are limiting factors for a lot of things regardless of money.
        I would love to chat at some point, hopefully see you around.

        Emily

        Reply

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