skip to content

Press release: From the future of democracy to bridging political extremes: political debates at the Cambridge Festival

The future of democracy in a digital age, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to rebuild trust after Brexit, how we bridge political extremes and what we have learnt from a year of ‘following the science’ form just some of the political debates at the Cambridge Festival this year.

The Cambridge Festival, which runs from 26th March to 4th April, brings together the hugely popular Cambridge Science Festival and the Cambridge Festival of Ideas to host an extensive programme of over 350 events that tackle many critical global challenges affecting us all. Coordinated by the University of Cambridge, the Festival features hundreds of prominent figures and experts in the world of science, current affairs and the arts, and has four key themes: health, environment, society and explore. The full programme is launched today.

Speakers in the politics events include Professor Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor David Runciman, Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Professor David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, award-winning behavioural scientist, freelance journalist and author Pragya Agarwal and Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University.

Several speakers have recent books out, including Professor Andrews, whose book The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World came out in February; Nina Schick, author of Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse: what you urgently need to know; Pragya Agarwal, whose recent book SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias has been described as ground-breaking by Waterstones; and historian Dr Lucy Delap, author of Feminisms: a global history.

Several of the politics events focus on human rights. The University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope, an international law expert, will be in conversation with human rights QC Philippe Sands about human rights law, including Cambridge’s place as a cradle for ideas of international human rights. Facilitated by Jessica Simor QC, they will touch on issues ranging from the Iraq War, the Nuremburg Trials and the links between law and literature as well as how a Cambridge professor coined the term ‘crimes against humanity’.


Other events focus on major political debates. They include:

Democracy in an era of upheaval - The last years, even the last months, have seen huge political upheaval around the world with massive implications for democracy. Covid has and will accelerate many existing trends, including the rise of Big Tech. What are the implications of some of the developments we are seeing now for democracies around the world and can technology be harnessed to improve democracy?  Panel discussion with David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge, Sharath Srinivasan, David and Elaine Potter Lecturer in Governance and Human Rights in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, Nina Schick, broadcaster and author, who specialises in how technology and artificial intelligence are reshaping society, and Leor Zmigrod, Research Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. Chaired by Chris Mann from BBC Cambridgeshire. [29th March 6-7pm]

Black Lives Matter: Has anything really changed? - It has been nearly a year since the shocking death of George Floyd, triggered protests around the world and calls for actions rather than words to tackle racism. How much have governments, institutions, the media and society generally taken those calls on board? This panel will hear from Pragya Agarwal, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham university, Ali Meghji, Lecturer in Social Inequalities at the University of Cambridge and author of Decolonising sociology: an introduction, and Monica Moreno Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Chaired by Kamal Munir, Reader in Strategy & Policy at the Cambridge Judge Business School. [31st March 6-7pm]

Following the Science: what lessons have we learnt about science? Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK government has said that it is following the science, but what does that mean when scientists do not necessarily agree on the evidence or what action should be taken? This panel discussion will look at the question from a variety of different scientific angles, from behavioural science to public health and science communication and policy implementation. David Halpern is Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team; geophysicist, civil servant and science communicator Claire Craig is Provost of The Queen's College, Oxford; Daniela De Angelis is Professor of Statistical Science for Health at the University of Cambridge; Parth Patel is a research fellow at the IPPR think tank and at University College London's Institute of Health Informatics and has worked as a junior doctor during the Covid pandemic. The session will be chaired by Rob Doubleday, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. [30th March 6-7pm]

Learning New Perspectives - Healing Polarisation. Creating Hope in Dialogue.  Can we begin to move our politics and public conversations from strident, polarised debate to peaceful dialogue - acknowledging the reality of our dependence on each other? Speakers are Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury; Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre; and Christian Picciolini, author of Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism and founder of the Free Radicals Project, which he set up after he moved away from the world of white supremacy and racist hatred. This event is hosted by the Inspire Dialogue Foundation which is committed to dialogue as a non-polarising and inclusive process. [29th March 4-5pm]

Public Dialogue and Trust After Brexit is a panel discussion with academics across the social sciences who will shed light on strategies for navigating dialogue with political opponents. Each will focus on one practical concept that has arisen in their research on the challenges and significance of public discourse during periods of heightened public mistrust. [31st March 6-7.30pm]


Other events will tackle gay rights and feminism:

In Feminisms: a global history, Dr Lucy Delap on why the narrative of 'feminist waves' - a sequence of ever more progressive updates ­- is simplistic. She will argue that feminists have been motivated by the specific concerns of their historical moment and that those who are part of the movement have not always agreed on a single programme. She says a more diverse history of feminism can help us better navigate current debates and controversies.

Pride of Cambridge [ see LGBTQ researchers talking about their work and experience at Cambridge.

Queer conceptions [] includes two sessions on families in the 21st century - a discussion on what queer parenthood means and a screening of the 2015 film Gayby Baby which follows the lives of four Australian children of gay parents.

In We are family [], Professor Susan Golombok from the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge will speak about her work which shows that the children of lesbian mothers, gay fathers, single parents, donor conception parents, co-parents, trans parents, surrogates and donors are as well-adjusted, happy and emotionally stable as children from traditional nuclear families - and sometimes even more so.

In A Unifying Theory of Gay [], stand-up comedian, podcaster and science communicator Cerys Bradley looks at the scientific research that has tried to understand what it means to be gay, how homosexuality happens and how LGBTQ+ people should be treated.

View the full programme via Many events require pre-booking, please check the events listings on the Festival website.

Keep up to date with the Festival on social media:

Instagram: @Camunifestivals | Facebook: @CambridgeFestival | Twitter: @Cambridge_Fest

The Festival sponsors and partners are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

For more information, contact Mandy Garner on 07789 106435 or email


Black Lives Matter, Hyde Park London protest