"I wouldn't exactly call it a meteoric rise", says Ella Grant, "more like we seem to have filled a gap, and people appreciate what we are doing."

We are talking about the - perhaps surprising, certainly enduring - popularity of the Whanganui Science Forum.

The Whanganui Science Forum is the brain child of Peter and Ella Grant, two unassuming retirees from a green valley in Whanganui. Beneath Peter's bearded exterior hides a PhD in Reproductive Biology and several decades in conservation.

Ella laughingly describes herself as 'of no fixed career' but her skills as a graphic designer are revealed each month in the poster and flyers the Science Forum distribute.


Together they are both brains and brawn of the Science Forum, organising speakers, distributing flyers and hosting talks. It is a not-for-profit organisation, with the entry fees going towards the costs of bringing the speakers, hiring the venue, and of course, supplying the chocolate biscuits for supper after the talks.

Asked what inspired them to start this project in motion, Peter says that it was a good friend in Nelson (where such a forum already existed) who said that he should just get on with it and start one himself. They both feel that science is the best way we have of solving our problems, and in order to make good decisions we must have good information. "We just wanted to make more information available in a digestible form", Ella says.

Their first two talks were collaborations with the MacDiarmid Institute and the Whanganui Regional Museum respectively, but in October 2015 The Whanganui Science Forum organised their first independent talk, hosting Dr Mike Joy who spoke on the state of our waterways.

Speakers are chosen based on two important criteria: they must be a currently working scientist, either lecturing or working in a scientific institution.

They must also be able to engage with the audience, and if their topic is interesting and hard-hitting, so much the better.

Other than that, topics have been extremely varied, with a sell-out talk on Earthquakes attracting a crowd of over 200 people; and a panel of five experts talked about the microbiome for an hour longer than the usual talk length and only lost two attendees in the process.

Speakers are usually pleasantly surprised at the number of attendees, which averages at around 75 people per talk.

When asked what the plans are for the future growth of the forum are, Ella says, "We aren't really planning any growth for the forum. It's a good size, a manageable amount of work and we have a great venue in the Whanganui Regional Museum's Davis Lecture Theatre."

The idea is to continue to source topical and interesting speakers to bring scientific knowledge to Whanganui. Future lecturers include Dr Trisia Farrelly from Massey who will talk about the ecology of hazardous plastics, and they hope to have someone speak about the Patea Reef before the end of the year.

While the forum's dream speaker would undoubtedly be Noam Chomsky, joint second place would go to Ben Goldacre, a renowned English critic of bad science ("he looks like a hobbit and punches like a heavyweight!") and Sir Geoffrey Palmer in the legal aspects of sustainable resource use. It would be "invigorating", says Ella.

The Whanganui Science Forum meets on the last Tuesday of the month, at 7.30pm in the Davis Lecture Theatre of the Whanganui Regional Museum, entrance from Watt Street. Members $4, non-members $5. Become a member at the talks, or email whascifo@xtra.co.nz.