At the end of October, the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) awarded the ESRC STEPS Centre its prestigious new Ziman award for ‘the most innovative cooperation in a venture to promote the public understanding of the social dimensions of science’.
The STEPS Centre (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) is an interdisciplinary global research and policy engagement centre uniting development studies with science and technology studies. It’s a subject that’s not always easy to wrap one’s mind around, which is why the Impact, Communication and Engagement team has looked for creative ways to communicate the research coming out of the centre and to engage wider audiences.
This search resulted in the ‘Innovation, Sustainability, Development: A New Manifesto’ project, which recommends new ways of linking science and innovation to development for a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future. The New Manifesto project included many collaborative and interactive elements such as: 20+ roundtable events across the world; an interactive wiki-timeline mapping over 40 years of science and technology for development; and a multimedia version of the Manifesto, illustrated with video, audio and other materials.
Producing a manifesto isn’t the most obvious choice for think tanks looking to engage target audiences, but in this case it was hugely successful. As such, I sat down with Julia Day, Communications Manager for the STEPS Centre, and Adrian Ely, Head of Impact and Engagement for the STEPS Centre – both of whom were deeply involved in the manifesto project – to understand a little bit more detail about how such a project worked.
JK: First of all, congratulations on winning the Ziman award. I wonder if you could start by explaining a bit more about the origins of the New Manifesto project?
Julia Day: Thank you very much; we were honoured to receive the award. In 1970 a radical document called The Sussex Manifesto helped shape modern thinking on science and technology for development. The Sussex Manifesto was written by academics at the Institute of Development Studies and SPRU – Science and Technology Research Policy, the same two institutes that make up the STEPS Centre. Forty years on, the STEPS Centre wondered what kind of science and technology for development Manifesto was needed for today’s world?
So, in 2010, the STEPS Centre created a new manifesto with one of the authors of the original, Professor Geoff Oldham. With cutting-edge ideas and some Southern perspectives, the New Manifesto recommended new ways of linking science and innovation to development for a more sustainable, equitable and resilient future.
JK: OK, but it sounds like you didn’t just create a document called the ‘New Manifesto’ and call it good. What sort of communication and engagement activities did you do to ensure it reached appropriate audiences?
JD: Communication and engagement activities were as strategically central to the project as the academic thinking. We wanted the whole project process and the debates it sparked to be accessible and understandable as possible, as well as the final document itself. So we fulsomely documented the process – making videos, podcasts, taking photos, writing blogs at events around the world – and made all the multimedia material available as we went along. We also did some related video work, for instance filming a series of interviews with prominent thinkers and practitioners about the future of subject of science and technology for development.
The Manifesto was printed as a booklet, but more importantly we made a multimedia version illustrated with video, audio and other materials collected during the project, as well as relevant resources drawn from the work of other people and organisations, which is available as a CD or via our website. We also created resources which could ‘live on’ and be used by different audiences in different ways, such as the interactive wiki-timeline mapping over 40 years of science and technology for development which website visitors can add to through a simple online form. Plus all our publications are open access and we put seminar presentations and videos online so that people to follow events virtually. We also used more traditional communication mixes, such as media work, e-marketing and publications and event promotion.
JK: That sounds like a lot of work. What sort of skills were needed within the team to achieve it? Did you have to outsource a lot of the actual activities? How resource-intensive was it?
Adrian Ely: We planned and managed the project ourselves. I convened the project and I drew heavily on the two-person communications team the STEPS Centre of Julia and Nathan Oxley, and the fantastic work of STEPS Centre Coordinator Harriet Dudley. But we outsourced some aspects: working with a web designer called Jasmine Wilkinson on the website and multimedia Manifesto; we had a dedicated research assistant in Elisa Arond; and of course relied on the convening abilities of our global partners. In terms of resources, peoples’ time was the main expense, but the active engagement of STEPS members and collaborators made it feasible, if at times challenging.
JK: Why do you think the Manifesto project was so successful?
AE: The project drew on an existing network of partners across STEPS, SPRU and IDS and built on a long history of work in this area, which was helpful. The idea of a Manifesto with the historical example of the original Sussex Manifesto caught people’s imaginations. But the interesting thing was the diversity of opinion canvassed at over 20 roundtable events across the world. The events were largely convened by partners, rather than the STEPS Centre, so the debate became much broader than we would have otherwise been able to manage.
JK: There is a wide range of stakeholders that the STEPS Centre targets with its work. Why did you choose such a political approach? Has that had consequences for engaging other types of stakeholders?
AE: There were undoubtedly sensitivities around producing a political document around the time of the UK general election in 2010. However, we tried to use this to our advantage, for example running the Manifesto event in Brighton and Hove where members of each of the main political parties sat on our panel.
JK: The idea of a Manifesto is a bold one for a research centre, and it certainly isn’t a typical approach for many think tanks. How has that fit into your communication mix?
JD: As a research centre we have always been open about stating our normative position to any subject – it’s part of the STEPS Centre’s pathways approach. And communicating our research in a clear and accessible way is central to the way we work. So while producing a Manifesto was certainly novel – and not something we would do for every project – it does fit with our overall approach to research, political engagement and communications.
JK: Many think tanks and research institutes struggle with a tension between project-based funding and the need to have high-level flagship activities and engagement. How has the STEPS Centre dealt with this tension?
AE: The STEPS Centre is immensely fortunate to receive relatively long-term funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Without that, this kind of initiative – which integrates insights from across the Centre – might not have been possible. We try to link our project and domain research to our Centre-level engagements, so in that respect they form part of a whole. We are using a similar approach to our work around the Post-2015 development agenda.
However there are also opportunity costs for researchers associated with this type of activity, especially if they are assessed on more formal research outputs like publications. Recognising engagement as an integral part of the research process is a welcome step forward among research councils and other funders.
JK: The award is specifically about ‘communicating the social dimensions of science’. Beyond the Manifesto, the STEPS Centre does this as part of its core activities. What sort of challenges have you faced here, and how have you dealt with them?
JD: It is difficult to communicate effectively around issues of uncertainty and complexity in any field. But having a group of researchers committed to communicating across disciplines and outside of the academic community helps enormously. Over the first five years of the Centre’s life we worked hard to try and understand how best to integrate communications in the research process. Now, during the second five year phase, we are genuinely embedding these activities in to our programmes and our Impact, Communications and Engagement (ICE) Unit working closely with researchers on planning projects.
JK: Many thanks to both of you for your time. If people would like to get in touch to find out more, how can they do so?