Lyubov Kostova and the beginning of Sofia Science Festival

Любов Костова говори на сцената на FameLab. Облечена е в червена роклю и носи черна жилетка.

Lyubov Kostova is the country director of British Council in Bulgaria. Before the British Council she has been working for 9 years at the Theatre Academy. Experienced in communications, she has led the international expansion of FameLab and co-founded the Sofia Science Festival.

I interviewed her in May 2019 during the ninth edition of Sofia Science Festival.

1. You have been a member of the British Council in Bulgaria since 2000. As a PR manager in the structure, you started the communication of science in our country. Nowadays, you continue with the effort in this direction as a director of British Council in Bulgaria (since 2012). What did provoke you to start communicating science?

Science and communication of science are very important for England. In their country there are university programs for science communicators, as being a science communicator is a real profession in UK. They have also a special Government Office for Science that advises the UK Government on a lot of subjects based on scientific research and evidence. Moreover, the Government gives a lot of money for science. However, at the end of 2002 its main scientific adviser conducted a survey about the way that UK science is promoted abroad. The results showed that most of the countries (including Bulgaria) did nothing in order to communicate science. Therefore, the science structures of the UK Government threatened to stop fundraising the British Councils in all this countries. So, we had to do something in order to save this money. A British expert came to Bulgaria and helped us make a survey about the public communication of science especially here. By that time I was still a PR expert in  British Council in Bulgaria, so I had a main role in that research. The results showed that there was a deficit of science communication in Bulgaria. There were no science journalists, no science media channels. The only science articles were part of the rubrics as “Curious” or translations of foreign authors. Back then even the journalist Maria Cherneva who is a graduated geneticist didn’t talk about science, because she was ashamed to do that. Moreover, the Bulgarian scientists didn’t think that there was a need to communicate science. Nobody could see the problem in that situation. Therefore, we started our efforts in order to change that. As one of the main roles of British Council is to educate, to support young people, we came up with the decision to teach children and school students science. 

2. How did you start? What was your first communication action? What was the public’s reaction?

The year was 2003. We didn’t relate on a high public interest about a science event, so we searched for a place with a huge organic human flow. We decided that the most popular mall back then – Central Sofia Market Hall, was the perfect place. As we had a place we had to find an appropriate topic. 2003 was the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the two chains structure on DNA. Therefore we chose DNA as a topic. We organized an event for school students. There were 5 groups of students who had to build a huge Lego model of DNA. All the kids had fun, a lot of people saw the event, a lot of teachers understood that there were unconventional and more interesting ways for teaching. Moreover, it was the first such event in a mall in Bulgaria.

3. How did you continue after that?

– Of course, there was much more work to be done. There were two more groups of high importance – journalists and scientists. We had to change their attitudes towards communicating science. Therefore, in 2004 we organized a communicating science training for both of this groups. Fortunately, there were enough enthusiasts. It was also the year of the first Bulgarian Café Scientifique (we were inspired by the UK model). Its aim was to attract the attention of the general public too. We chose the place and the topic for the first edition the same way as for the DNA event. We convinced the owners of the café – nowadays called “Timeless”, that we would attract people who could become their constant customers, so they let us have our event there. We also expected that the place would be full of ordinary clients who could become part of the Café Scientifique’s discussions. The topic was AIDS as it was the International AIDS day – 1st December. It was an intriguing topic for the general public so we expected that we would provoke a lot of people to attend our first Café Scientifique. Moreover, soon after that we started an international online version of Café Scientifique. One lecturer was talking from one country and people from two other countries were watching him/her. It was a very successful project, the interest was enormous. Meanwhile, we organized a few scientific exhibitions. In 2004 we introduced also the model of “Europe researchers’ night” in Bulgaria. We made efforts to have this format in our country without any fundraising until 2010 when it became an official part of the communication program of British Council, Bulgaria. 

4. The “Europe researchers’ night” is a very interesting format. It includes a lot of cities in the whole country. How do you manage to organize so many people and institutions from such a distance, how do you manage to make it real?

– There are people from every part of the country who are interested in science, so they make all of this possible. We just have to organize them. And the only secret ingredient is the brilliant communication.

5. In 2005 the British Council in Bulgaria organized the first science festival in the country. Could you tell me about it?

The spot of the festival was “Sofia Land” – a favorite place of a lot of kids back then, and the main topic – physics as it was the year of the physics. The name of the festival was “Let’s play science”. Schools from 13 Bulgarian cities took part in the festival. There were performances, fashion shows, songs, exhibitions of students’ models, paintings and crosswords, a stand with gadgets from the National Polytechnic Museum – all this united by the common topic – physics. Even scientists form UK came for the event. Two scientists from the University of the West of England in Bristol demonstrated a lot of physics experiments in front of the public. There was also a demonstration of a rocket’s construction. All of the children were amazed.

6. However, this festival didn’t have a second edition and the Sofia Science Festival didn’t become a reality until 2011. What did happen during this 5 years?

– Our team was and still is inspired by the idea of communicating science. However, we needed huge support in order to make something big. We needed the support of the Bulgarian Government. As British Council is famous with its educational activities and its experience in international communication, as it could help for the relations between Bulgaria and other countries, to establish stable contacts between them, as there was an existing model of formats for successful science communication in UK, the Bulgarian Government decided to help us. In 2007 in a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Science and the British Council in Bulgaria we started the program “Beautiful Science”. It included 7 countries in Southeast Europe and Bulgaria was the main center. That program had three parts:

  • FameLab in order to teach scientists how to communicate their knowledge and ideas to the general public;
  • Scientific theatre for kids, called “See the beauty in science”, in order to inspire their love in science;
  • Scientific debates for adults in order to make them think, to inspire their interest in science too.

Therefore, in 2007 the first edition of FameLab became reality. A few years later – in 2011, we already had a lot of communicators of science, but not a big enough tribune for them. So we decided to start the Sofia Science Festival where all this scientist could talk in front of the general public. It was an already existing UK format, so we decided that it was the time to introduce it in Bulgaria too, again with the support of the Bulgaria Government. The place that we chose was the park called “Doktorska gradina”, as there was a huge flow of parents with kids there. However, it appeared that there were too many people who were interested in the festival. Therefore, next year we changed the place with a similar, but bigger location – park “Zaimov”. Fortunately, Sofia Theatre also helped letting us use its stage too. By the time even that place became too small for our public, so we moved to Sofia Tech Park. Moreover, this time the festival appeared to be beneficial for the spot, increasing the popularity of Sofia Tech Park thanks to its own popularity. 

7. Have you seen any change in people’s attitudes towards science thanks to the festival?

– Yes, I see a huge change. 17 years ago nobody here cared about communication of science. During the years we have conducted some research about the way that science events influence the environment in Bulgaria. We found out that they increase the interest of the general public in science, but also of journalists. At the beginning two months after one of our scientific events the number of media articles about science was increasing, the interest of people in science fiction, in stories related to science, the number of editorial articles about science too. Nowadays, visiting science lectures is a favorite hobby of a lot of people. There is a big number of specialized Bulgarian Mass Media for science, the communicators of science are many. The entire image of the scientist has changed. Today people are proud of being able to speak about science, of being interested in science, of being scientists. However, all this was a long process and Sofia Science Festival is just a part of it, but maybe the most important one. It gives a stage for a lot of Bulgarian communicators of science, it attracts a lot of great foreign scientist, it unites a lot of topics in one place, it gathers a huge general public. People come to see foreign scientists, to take autographs. Scientists start new relationships with their colleagues from all over the world. Young communicators of science have a stage for trainings. Teachers find new effective way for teaching. Children have fun while they learn a lot of new things about the world around them. Adults learn what happens in the country, what they give their taxes money for. Moreover, the scientists from the old generation also changed their attitudes towards communication of science. In the past they thought that Sofia Science Festival was only for young people, nowadays we have a lot lecturers of this generation on the festival. Last year professor Nikolay Vitanov from the Faculty of Physics of Sofia University, conducted a lecture about the quantum computers. The hall was full, there were more than 200 people. Professor Vitanov was amazed. He confessed to me that he was used to teach in front of 5-6 students and he didn’t believe that so many people would come to listen to him.

8.  And finally, why do you believe that communicating science is so important?

– First of all, people have the right to know how the Government spends their tax money. Learnig what Bulgarian scientists do, learning about their research and discoveries, people see the result of their “investments”. Moreover, science is part of the government’s agenda in each country – ecology, medicine, engineering, etc. – all this is science. People have to understand the huge importance of science in order to help its development. Nowadays, there is a lack of Bulgarian scientists in the field of natural science. It means lack of Bulgarian research and important discoveries in the near future too. Communicating science is an effective way for changing this situation, for attracting more children and young people to study natural science, to become scientists.

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