Uniting fact and fiction in the name of science

A colleague in the office sent me this rather good blog on New Philanthropy Capital.  In it, Angela Kail talks about, or rather asks the question, why charities generally don’t do more to promote the real evidence of their effectiveness rather than rely – or allow others to rely on – anecdotes.

My belief is that research charities still do far too little to connect the two – hard evidence and the rich anecdote.   And by doing so we can often find ourselves falling short in the ‘selling game’ if I put it crudely like that.

AMRC and its member charities have a good story to tell about how we use peer review in terms of quality assurance, or to put it another way, ensuring that the sector funds science of the highest quality.  All AMRC’s members must abide by our principles of peer review and we audit how well they are doing every five years.  We are in the midst of this audit right now but you might wish to look at the results of our last audit on our website (see item for 2nd February 2007). 

…by the way some of you may have seen the announcement today that the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is starting a new inquiry into ‘peer review’ and has called for written evidence to be submitted by 10th March….

But we have not been so good at telling the story of how the high quality science the sector funds is making a difference.  Indeed, this very issue, has cropped-up in every conversation I have had with members this week.  The basic line goes something like this:  We can demonstrate how we ensure we fund the best of the best; but following this through and being able to show impact is proving very difficult. 

My sense is that too often charities tend to separate the hard facts intended for a scientific audience, and the anecdotes that might give them greater meaning to a wider audience.  They think of reporting to their scientific colleagues and the public as two different activities.  They don’t think how the one can support if not enhance the other.  And they mistakenly make the assumption that what will interest one audience won’t interest another.  After all, most of us like a good story don’t we, particularly if it is true?

In simple terms it means that rather than say ‘We fund £x of research including x number of scientists at x laboratory..’ we should be saying ‘I am Simon and I am one of 12 scientists funded by x charity.  Their money enabled me to stay in science and devote mytime to trying to understand the causes of ‘x’ disease.’   Sorry, I know that is a poor example.  But I hope that you can see how the faceless, the purely numerical can become a person, an activity and a story that we can begin to visualise and very likely remember.

Last night I attended the BioIndustry Association’s annual where I heard a great example of this.  

Ahead of the evening’s silent auction, Neil Dickson, who founded the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust in honour of his daughter, told his story about the research the Trust has funded since 1996 so that it is now the leading funder of research into brain tumours in the UK.  That journey had seen Neil and his wife, Angela, travel far and wide.  Their latest trip had been to the leading international conference in the field which was held in Vienna.  Here, they found out that the UK was second-only to the US in the number of papers being presented and, of these, 60% was work that had been supported by the Trust.  It was a well-told story with an indisputable fact to support it.

Every fact can help tell a story.  A story without fact is merely that – a story.

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