Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s mainstream

 Posted by sustainable on January 11, 2012 

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Nowadays it’s a given that everyone in communications wants to get their messages across via the latest tv drama.  We know that if a character on one of the popular soaps suffers from a serious disease doctors surgeries will be inundated with patients wanting to be tested, or if a social problem such as domestic violence is aired, support groups will either applaud or condemn the way it is handled, conscious of the potential influence.   But back in the 1950 this was a pretty novel idea.  Food production was a high priority following the second world war, with rationing only recently ended.  At the same time scientists were coming up with a lot of new ideas that could potentially boost yields.  Joining up research and practice was vital.  Exactly who came up with the idea of using radio drama – whether it was some bright spark in the Ministry of Agriculture or a BBC producer – seems to be lost in the mists of time, but it led to a pilot for “The Archers – an everyday story of country folk”.   The series quickly caught the imagination, not just of the farming community, but of the whole country.  Not only was it a useful means of communicating the latest MAFF directive, it helped an increasingly urban population to keep in touch with the countryside.   Some might say it has perpetuated stereotypes, but it certainly came in useful for a townie like me when I applied for the post of Science Communications Manager for the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.  I even cited it in my job interview as an example of innovation in communications and suggested that if appointed, I would like to adopt a similarly creative approach to getting research across to stakeholders.

That was five years ago and I think during that time Relu has been adventurous in its knowledge exchange strategy, as well as in its key features of interdisciplinarity and stakeholder involvement .  In fact those three elements work together.  Our publications aim to be accessible and non-academic in tone and draw on stakeholder expertise as well as academic research, using language that may be understood by non-specialists.  Cartoons by David Haldane of The Times have made several Relu briefing papers particularly memorable.  In a few lines, he speaks volumes about Relu and scientific research.

Relu conferences have been opportunities for interaction, rather than events where the audience sits and listens to academic papers.  Over the years they have featured a video feed-back box where delegates could give their views, speed-dating sessions, books of vouchers which stakeholders use to “sign up” as visiting fellows to projects, interactive, science-fair type activities, on-line and real life debates and “X-Factor” style awards.  The Sustainable Uplands Project has taken this creative approach further than most, with their songs and storytelling.  The whole programme has been an experiment in how to do science.  I think it is one of the signs of success that these kinds of approaches no longer seem so revolutionary.  Interdisciplinarity?  Surely everyone is doing it?  Stakeholder involvement?  It’s a given, surely?  And innovative knowledge exchange?  Well, it’s going to be the fun events that people remember, we all know that.  I would like to think that, just like The Archers, suddenly we are mainstream, because if Relu has a legacy, this creative approach to knowledge exchange needs to be a major part of it.

Want to know more?

Useful documents available on the Relu website are:

Relu Briefing Paper 6 Common Knowledge: An exploration of knowledge transfer

Relu Briefing paper 10 Telling stories: Accounting for knowledge exchange

Relu Briefing Paper 16 Adventures in Science: Interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange in the Relu Programme

And you can Read my blog.