How a lab tour for people with neurological disorders inspired the global Pint of Science festival

Pint of Science co-founder Praveen Paul chats with students in an informal setting at the University of Northampton.

Pint of Science co-founder Praveen Paul talks to students at an event at the University of Northampton, UK.Credit: University of Northampton

In 2012, neuroscientist Praveen Paul co-founded Pint of Science, an annual global science festival that brings together researchers in local pubs, bars, cafes and community spaces to share and discuss their scientific findings with the public through informal discussions. The festival takes place over three days in May and, since its start in the UK in 2013, has spread to hundreds of cities in 26 countries. This year, it will take place from May 22 to 24. Nature spoke to Paul about his experiences in setting up and running the festival.

What is Pint of Science and what is it used for?

Pint of Science introduces scientific research to the public through opportunities to discuss with those doing the work. As well as events in pubs, bars and cafes, we have organized art-science events in churches, lectures on boats and mountain huts and even a live link to the International Space Station.

The events are organized by volunteers who study or work in science, with small teams of organizers in each country. Pint of Science is a not-for-profit organization and in the UK it is funded by ticket sales, sponsorship and support from around 45 participating institutions. As Director, I make sure everything runs smoothly – responding to emails from the public, managing and supporting teams of volunteers, dealing with sponsors, doing accounts, maintaining the website, and even shipping goods from At my house. It may look big, but it has a very small operational base supported by thousands of volunteers around the world.

Who is in your audience?

In the beginning, most of our audiences worked in science to some degree and heard about events by word of mouth. But now we’ve changed: we have more people who either dropped out of science after school or didn’t think science was for them. We encourage presenters to show objects they use in the lab and share their personal stories. This promotes discussion and shows the human side of research. Spectators often buy the speakers a drink and continue to chat with them long after the event. They sometimes ask probing questions that provide speakers with new insights or make good suggestions that connect disciplines and help researchers collaborate in new ways.

Empty 2017 Pint of Science pint glasses arranged on a table with a diffused background.

Pint of Science branded empty pint glasses at an event in 2017.Credit: Nick Rutter

Having now organized thousands of events, we have seen the trends in the research chosen by organizers. In the UK, a flurry of events on plastics in the ocean (2017) was followed by others on artificial intelligence and machine learning (2018), then personalized medicine (2019) and , most recently, on vaccines and COVID-19. Overall, the public is now much more interested in the Earth and the climate than a few years ago.

We seek to increase inclusion and diversity. We aim to provide training to all volunteers, so we consider these factors when choosing our teams, speakers, locations and topics.

What gave you the idea for the first Pint of Science?

My co-founder Michael Motskin and I met at Imperial College London as postdoctoral researchers. I was studying genes involved in motor neuron disease and he was researching using nanoparticles to deliver drugs to the brain for Parkinson’s disease. In 2012, we hosted an event that brought people with various neurological conditions and their families to our labs to see the research being done. The event marked us. We thought why not bring scientists to people, using public spaces such as pubs, bars and cafes? It wasn’t a new idea, but we tweaked it – we planned our events to run simultaneously over three days and inspired by the way music festivals are held, where you choose to which stage direct you.

A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work, but we were fueled by enthusiasm and naivety. We had no experience in science communication, organizing events, building websites, or even talking with academic colleagues about research outside our fields.

How has Pint of Science changed your career path?

The first event was a success. Michael and I had come to the end of our postdocs and were unemployed. We didn’t want to stay in academia, so we decided to see how far we could push the idea. It soon became clear that Pint of Science could not be used as a hobby or without us being paid, as it consumed everything. So I went straight from postdoc to full-time director of a science festival – with a very steep learning curve.

From 2013 to 2019 we have grown from 45 events in the UK to around 600 there and 3,000 elsewhere. The rapid growth was exciting, but stressful – we had to turn a project run by a handful of friends into a professional organization. I was redefining who I was and wondering if it was worth it, but I also learned skills such as marketing, accounting, negotiation and managing people and projects. It was hard work, but the support and enthusiasm of the team kept us moving forward, including our international director, Paris-based neuroscientist Élodie Chabrol, who got more countries involved.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the festival?

The pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt, and since we rely on ticket sales for our basic finances, we weren’t sure if Pint of Science could recover. This meant several years without income – a worrying time, especially because from May 2020 I ran the UK branch of the festival on my own. We had leftover funding from 2019, and I’ve had other jobs, including as a freelance web manager for science-based companies and a consultant at a local nonprofit community coworking space.

About two-thirds of affected countries held free online events in 2020 and 2021, which gave our organizers some fun during the lockdown. In 2020, an online event on race and science with Esther Odekunle, an antibody engineer at AbCellera in Vancouver, Canada, and an advocate for greater scientific diversity, and with Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Racial Science (2019), drew over 2,500 viewers.

Most countries resumed in-person events by May 2022, but some could no longer hold them because people had changed jobs or the infrastructure was no longer there. In some places we have to start from scratch. We have noticed that the public now tends to book only at the last minute, which makes planning more difficult and it is more difficult to recruit new organizers and speakers. But we are busy planning this year’s festivals and hoping to rebuild for the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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