Dr Lindsay KeithCEO of The Refinery and creator of SMASHfest UKPeople Awards
SMASHfest UK is a festival with a narrative. In 2016 the participants imagined a solar storm had hit the area, wiping out all electronics. This let them explore the low-tech alternatives to modern conveniences.
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Getting Wellcome Trust funding
What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?
My background’s in immunology. Because I have that biomedical background, I was aware of the Wellcome Trust from way back when. I was the recipient of a couple of grants in broadcast development before I did SMASHfest.
When I applied for a People Award, I knew Wellcome was an organisation that will take risks and that believes in true public engagement. I hoped I’d be able to convince the committees that my idea was good enough for them to back.
The funding also felt appropriate for what we were trying to do. I was a ‘company’ – but essentially a single person – raising funds to put on this event. The amount that was offered was perfect.
What aspects of the People Awards funding are most useful to you?
The flexibility. The Wellcome Trust is a biomedical funder, and SMASHfest covers other sciences in addition to biomedicine. But Wellcome was our biggest funder. They also allowed us a certain amount of flexibility in how we use our funds.
For example, they gave us some core funding. Funders often want to see all their money going on the events, which I completely understand. But somebody has to pay for the office, the computers, the printing... I'm not part of a bigger organisation that can underwrite those costs.
The money for core costs has to come from somewhere. Wellcome accepts that, and that was really useful.
How did you find the application process?
People Awards don't have an interview, only an application form. I struggle with application forms: I'm not an organised person. I'm good at being creative but rubbish at spreadsheets. It took me a long time to submit my first People Award application, mostly due to my fear of it not being quite right.
The Public Engagement team helped me out as I was applying. I had a couple of meetings with Tom, who was very supportive. It was a useful way to sort out what I needed to do and make sure I got the right bits in the right part of the application.
How challenging did you find it to secure funding?
We've been lucky, but an enormous amount of time went into applying for grants we didn't get. The first year was especially difficult.
We applied to two major funders, and we hoped we'd get at least one of those. When we got turned down by both, we thought we'd have to do the first festival on a shoestring.
We were also turned down by the Arts Council. Their Grant for the Arts has a rolling submission, so I rewrote my application and submitted it again. We found out that was successful 15 days before the festival, so we had 15 days to spend £15,000. That was completely crazy – but good.
I was successful first time with Wellcome, once I submitted the application! We also had funding from Middlesex University, under their widening participation scheme. They've supported SMASHfest from the beginning, and that was really important to our development.
In the first year we got turned down by a few organisations that I thought I'd put in really good applications for. I think it was about risk.
No one gives money away without a great deal of thought, and funders want theirs used in the best way possible. If you can prove you'll be successful because you've run your event before, that's a better bet for them. I understand that, but you need somebody to back you the first time. That's what Wellcome was able to do.
What advice would you give to other applicants?
Be clear and be realistic. Make sure you don't over-promise, and make sure you can deliver what you've offered well.
I have a tendency to get carried away with ideas and think 'That would be fantastic! We'll do all these things.' You then have to say, 'Actually, I don't have enough pairs of hands to do it.'
There's a lot of estimates: what you think it will take, how you think it will work. The more research and planning you can do, the better. But without resources from elsewhere, you can't always test things beforehand. If you need to, make sure you include development costs in your budget as well as delivery costs.
2015: Visiting Lecturer, University of Greenwich
2014: Festival Director, SMASHfest UK
2011: Creative Director, Refinery Productions Ltd
2002–11: Producer/Director, various shows including Scrapheap Challenge, Demolition Day, The Garage, Engineering Giants and Top Trumps
2002–06: PhD in Investigative Medicine, Imperial College London
1998–2001: Researcher/Associate Producer, BBC Science
What have been the defining moments of your career so far?
I did a bachelor's degree in immunology and a PhD in infectious diseases. Then I had a research assistant role at Newcastle University, in health sciences. I did that for a year.
By that time, I knew I didn't want to stay in academic science. I love science, but I was hopeless in the lab. I liked the idea of science communications and managed to get a job at the BBC as a researcher.
I was at the BBC for three and a half years, then went freelance in 2002. I set up The Refinery, which is my small production company, in 2010. The Refinery brings together my love of public engagement and science with my film-making knowledge.
We make films and animations for universities, charities, learning societies – that kind of thing. I'd been doing that for a couple of years when I started to think about SMASHfest.
Aims and spreading the word
What's the main aim of SMASHfest?
My real hope is to make science accessible. I want to bring science to people who aren't accessing other informal science education.
One reason for this is we don't have enough young people going into STEM careers. There's an economic argument for it. But the reason I'm passionate about is that we don't have enough diversity in people going into STEM.
We're based in Deptford, where more than 50 per cent of people live in poverty and more than 65 per cent are from BME communities or have BME heritage. We know these groups are underrepresented in science careers.
We know from the ASPIRE study that part of the issue is these young people see science as 'otherworldly'. They see it as something that's not for them. And our message is 'it is for you'.
I want to bring the equivalent of a science museum on your doorstep to the local area. It’s unlikely that people from this demographic are going to travel for an hour to get to the Science Museum. Even though that's free, and it's in London, it's not a resource that gets used by our audiences.
In the long term I'd like to show that SMASHfest has an effect in Deptford. I'd like see if it makes more young people interested in or engaged with science. If the model works, I'd like to roll it out to similar communities. I want everyone, no matter what their background, to be able to engage with these things if they want to.
How are you going about achieving this aim?
We're trying to break down the barriers of accessibility. We don't brand SMASHfest as a 'science festival' because the phrase is a barrier to access.
Because my background is in television, I want SMASHfest to be entertainment-driven. There's underlying science, but it's primarily about fun. I want people to want to join in, whether they see themselves as liking science or not.
We use a local approach. SMASHfest takes places right in the heart of the community, in public community spaces. We also use a themed narrative structure to engage people. In the first year we imagined an asteroid was going to hit Deptford, and we had to figure out what to do about it. This year we imagined surviving after a solar storm wiped out our electronics. How do we survive without modern conveniences?
Our approach was almost overwhelmingly successful. It was beyond our wildest dreams – the audiences we had, how well they engaged and how positive they were.
How do you tell people about SMASHfest?
Word of mouth, brochures, flyers and social media. We're on Twitter and Facebook. We also do a lot of schools outreach (assemblies and workshops) in the run-up to SMASHfest.
We commissioned a play called Cosmic Jives using Arts Council funding. It's about Rory, a teenager from Deptford who's into astronomy, and her struggle to do what she wants to do. We'd like to see if we can get more funding to tour it in schools.
We discovered in the pilot that young adults weren't coming along. It's a difficult age group to engage, so we set up a Young Science Experience scheme for them. They help run the festival, rather than coming along as the audience.
We hope we can continue to build that community of young people. They won't come to the festival unless they have some investment in it, but community ownership was always part of our plan anyway. We want to ask the people in the community 'What do you want in your festival?'
We've also put on some events outside schools. We had a 'bee disaster' weekend at Besson Street Gardens and a SMASHfest Fun Palace. We do as many events as we can, resources allowing, throughout the year. We'd like to make them more regular so people know when to expect them.