Cambridge Festival unveils 2022 programme

Political crises, the past, present and future of eastern world orders, the outlook for feminism, new technologies and treatments for a range of diseases, and the state of our natural world top the bill at this year’s Cambridge Festival, which returns with an extensive line-up of events.  

Robot Nao and researcher Micol Spitale

The full programme launches on Monday 28th February, with bookings opening on the same day, for the series of free events run by the University of Cambridge between 31st March – 10th April.

Following a hugely successful inaugural year in 2021 – which saw well over 100,000 online global views during the 10-day festival period – the Cambridge Festival returns to host over 350 in-person and on-line events that can be viewed by anyone, anywhere in the world. The programme tackles and offers solutions for some of our most pressing issues, from the multiple crises in politics, health and climate change to global economics and human rights.

Prominent figures and experts in the world of current affairs, science, arts, and culture are speaking at this year’s Festival. They include author Jeannette Winterson; Astronomer Royal, Professor Lord Martin Rees; former head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 and President of Murray Edwards College, Dorothy Byrne; chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman; geneticist, obesity researcher and broadcaster, Dr Giles Yeo; Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office, Dr Moira Nicolson; virologist and broadcaster, Dr Chris Smith; and Professor of Politics David Runciman.  

Divided into four key themes: society, health, environment and discovery, the programme includes debates, talks, exhibitions, lab tours, workshops, films, and performances. The aim is to present new ideas, cutting-edge research and historical insight into the issues that affect all of us. There are also hundreds of interactive events geared towards children, young people, and families.

The Festival presents a range of events that help us to understand what is happening today and whether the many challenges we face could spawn new ideas about how we organise Society. From asking if political innovation can come from crisis and whether ‘productivity’ is the best way of thinking about our work lives, to delving into the rise and fall of eastern world orders such as China and Russia, to asking whether liberal societies should regulate tech giants.  

During one of the many panel events focussed on Society, Professors David Runciman and Arshin Adib Moghaddam, ask Can political innovation come from crisis? Chaired by Dorothy Byrne, President of Murray Edwards College and former head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4. David Runciman is Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge where he also hosts the weekly politics podcast ‘Talking Politics’. His most recent book, Confronting Leviathan, explores the birth of new political ideas over the last centuries. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, whose work investigates the impact of technology and AI on future politics and society, is Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS, University of London and Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge.

In Before the West: rise and fall of eastern world orders, Ayse Zarakol, Professor of International Relations, and Hans Van de Ven, Professor of Modern Chinese History, both from the University of Cambridge, discuss Professor Zarakol’s new book (due to be published in April 2022), which offers a grand narrative of (Eur)Asia and uses that to rethink the concepts and debates of international relations, such as order and decline.

A further panel discussion, Can Liberal Democracies regulate Tech Giants? chaired by Professor John Naughton of Wolfson College, Cambridge and the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, considers the regulation of global technology companies. The networked world is now dominated by a small number of these companies, and Western democracies have woken up to the dangers posed by such a powerful and largely unregulated industry. However, the many attempts to rein in tech power have yielded few results. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in China where the country's tech industry seems to be under government control. Which prompts the question: can tech giants only be successfully regulated by authoritarian regimes?

It is safe to say that Health, physical, mental, and social well-being, has been at the top of everyone’s agenda for the past two years. The Festival has numerous events covering a range of health issues, from the ethics of regenerative medicine to whether better science requires fewer limits, to future therapies for COVID-19. There are talks about the innovative treatments for cardiovascular disease, including a brand-new study looking at using an epilepsy drug to treat stroke, and new technologies for organ transplantation. Another event explores how Rubik’s Cubes and Pyramids could help us crack the code to getting fit.

COVID-19 is obviously a hot topic across all themes at this year’s Festival. One of the most important questions explored is around the lessons learnt from the pandemic on communicating with the public about science. In Covid communications: did science win? University of Cambridge virologist and popular broadcaster Dr Chris Smith from the Naked Scientists talks about his experience of public engagement during the pandemic; social psychologist Professor Sander van der Linden also from the University of Cambridge speaks about his work on countering conspiracy theories and on literacy; Dr Moira Nicolson, Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office, speaks about the role of her team in addressing vaccine hesitancy, what worked and what didn't; and Professor of Health Psychology Tushna Vandrevala from Kingston University and St George's University of London speaks about COVID vaccine hesitancy among hard-to-reach groups.

In a related COVID event, In conversation with SARS-CoV-2 variant hunters (5 April, in person, live stream, on demand), University of Cambridge researchers Professor Sharon Peacock and Dr Katerina Galai from the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium, examine the genomic sequencing of the virus causing COVID-19, and how this work helps in understanding transmission, how to treat the disease and the effectiveness of vaccines.

Cutting-edge fertility research in Cambridge – including advances in keeping embryos alive up to the 14-day limit, genome editing and ‘synthetic embryos’ – is starting to raise many legal, ethical and moral questions about which experiments are acceptable, and where we should draw the boundaries. A panel of scientific, legal, sociological and historical experts debate this during the discussion, Cambridge at the cutting edge of human embryo research: does better science require fewer limits?

The Environment took centre stage globally last year during the G7 in Cornwall and COP26 in Edinburgh. The Cambridge Festival brings together a range of experts to discuss the critical state of our environment and what we can all do to help repair it. Highlights under this theme include discussions on alternative proteins such as lab-grown meats and insects, the possibilities and drawbacks of carbon capture and storage, whether aviation can go green, marine biomass regeneration, and energy producing windows of the future.

The finance sector also comes under scrutiny in the event Financing the transition to a sustainable economy. Dr Nina Seega, Research Director for Sustainable Finance at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, explores three themes – What is sustainable finance? What has COP26 meant for the financial sector? And how can the financial sector help us deliver on the aims of the Glasgow agreement? A related event explores why helping nature is good for the economy.

The Discovery theme explores some of the new and emerging research taking place at Cambridge across different subject areas. With a huge array of events, it offers people of all ages the opportunity to explore and discover new things about the world around them. Events not to be missed include a chance to meet ‘Pepper’, the robot wellbeing coach, a discussion on the future possibilities for mixed reality holographic video projections, and a debate about the future of feminism. Events exploring the realms of possibility, include a discussion on gene editing technology in which University of Cambridge chemist turned synthetic biologist Dr Kim Liu asks whether instead of only editing the genetic code, could we also expand it with other unnatural amino acids resulting in unimaginable and far-reaching possibilities?

Finally, there is no shortage of things to see and do for children, young people, and families. They can choose from hundreds of fun, engaging events – from gameshows, escape rooms and live experiments, to hands-on workshops, explosive demos and much more.  On 2-3 April, the Festival also welcomes back one of the most popular events from the previous Cambridge Science Festival, the family weekend at the Guildhall.   

Tipped to be another firm favourite with families is the Deception Island Hut. Visitors are invited to embark on an immersive poetry, sound, and film expedition as they step inside a replica 1959 Antarctic hut and are transported to Deception Island, a tiny caldera in the Antarctic Ocean, battered by the fiercest seas in the world and shaken by volcanic activity.

Speaking ahead of the Festival programme launch, Cambridge Festival Manager David Cain said: “We are absolutely delighted to be back in person this year with a programme that covers the full spectrum of what it means to be human in the 21st century. We’re also excited to be able to present a Festival that combines both our new online event format as well as the chance to meet researchers in person again.

“Alongside all the events sharing the latest innovative research here in Cambridge, there are performances, comedy, art exhibitions and so much more. A few of my personal highlights include the Manga workshops; a talk about John Davis’ new book, Waterloo Sunset, which is due out in March and is all about London in the swinging 60s and 70s; a fascinating comparison between plague poetry in the 14th and 21st Century; and a playful trip through the online disinformation maze with Hugo Leal from the Minderoo Centre. I can’t wait!

“We’re very much looking forward to welcoming everyone in person and online to share the work of the University of Cambridge and its collaborators during the 11 days of the Cambridge Festival.”  

The full programme is due to be launched on 28 February via the Festival website: www.festival.cam.ac.uk Bookings open on the same day from 10am.

Image: Robot Nao and researcher Micol Spitale 

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