Live music – check. Dance performances – check. Plentiful food stalls and more cake than the Great British Bake off final – check. All key elements of any good festival, and all were to be found at the Bloomsbury Festival this past weekend. But what about bioethics?
Perhaps not an obvious association for an arts and literature themed festival, but having spent this weekend running a stand there, handing out our publications and talking to people about our diverse range of work, it seemed to me that bioethics and festivals can go very well together.
Though Bloomsbury Festival is now in its eighth year, it is really only in the last couple of years that it has come on to our radar, and quite literally onto our doorstep (e.g. Jazz in the Square in Bedford Square, where our office is located). This was the first time we have been involved with the festival, and to be absolutely honest we were a little unsure quite what to expect when we signed up for a stand in the book tent.
We set up early on Saturday morning, just as the crowds started to trickle in to Russell Square, the focal point of the weekend activities. Nicely located at the back of the book tent, our stand was fortunately well sheltered from another classic feature of the average British festival, the inevitable downpours. But we needn’t have worried about the weather dampening people’s spirits or causing people to stay away, in fact, there was barely time to grab a coffee before the first of the day’s festival goers had arrived in the book tent and were heading our way.
Throughout the day we had a more or less constant stream of visitors coming over to peruse our library of bioethics reports and booklets. Whether it was a personal interest in a subject we have worked on, a general curiosity to find out more ‘about interesting stuff’, or simply a chance to browse our full range of works in hard copy, we spoke to far more people and gave away far more copies of our reports than we had ever envisaged. So much so that I had to fit in a trip back to the office just after lunch to re-stock our supplies (thankfully the rain had stopped at that point).
It was a welcome opportunity to meet and chat to so many members of the public about our organisation and the ways in which we work. Many were surprised to find out that we are an independent body, free to set our own topics (guided by our terms of reference), which is something that sets us aside from most other National Bioethics Commissions around the world. There was much interest in how we are positioned within the policy landscape, and in how we seek to frame complex ethical discussions and principles around each topic in ways that resonate with people’s everyday lives.
It also gave us the chance to hear a range of opinions on some of the pressing issues we’ve looked at in recent reports. Two conversations that particularly stick in my mind are: debating the ins and outs (literally) of Wales’ planned introduction of an opt-out system for organ donation and whether the rest of the UK might follow; and discussing what more the Government and parents should be doing to address childhood obesity (see our public health report with a case study on obesity).
It could be said that we have not often enough in the past put ourselves out into a truly public space such as this, but with our key strategic goals in mind, we will be keen to do more along these lines in future.
As for the festival in general, our plan of having two members of staff there on each day paid dividends, for despite our busyness we all managed to take a bit of time each to explore some of the other stalls, activities and talks on offer. I was particularly impressed with the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Ministry of Movement’ marquee where I caught a talk by the excellent Dr Peter Lovatt on psychology of dance. Rarely have I seen keener audience participation.
Thanks Bloomsbury Festival for having us, we hope to be back next year.