NESTA Crucible: a eulogy

In these tough economic times™ lots of things that we care about, and which rely on public funding, are coming under increased scrutiny. The case for science has been well made elsewhere – I’m sure you’re aware of the Science is Vital campaign, and if not you should be. You should also take a look at Shrigley’s equally impassioned, and equally watertight case for the arts (it’s very funny too). Given the threats to both of these sectors, it is perhaps not surprising that the continued existence of NESTA, which exists to foster innovation across sciences and the arts, is also being questioned. (I should point out that NESTA is funded by an endowment from the National Lottery rather than through tax revenue, and that their stated aim to harness innovation to solve major economic and social problems sounds like the kind of thing that politicians have been asking for, but I digress…) The initiative that brought me into contact with NESTA is, however, already extinct. The Crucible programme ran for just a few years, and is described as

…a series of residential workshops run by NESTA to help researchers, who face demanding challenges in their own fields, to network and look to solve more complex challenges across several disciplines. By bringing bright thinkers together, Crucible was designed to help people see the bigger picture…

I came across Crucible early in 2007, when I was applying for jobs and fellowships left right and centre. I kept getting shortlisted, even had a few interviews, always followedby the professional equivalent of ‘I really like you but…’

I can’t remember where I saw the Crucible advert, but the application process was suitably short, and the questions suitably intriguing (‘Please tell us about yourself’, ‘Please give details of your activities outside research’, and so on) that I thought I’d give it a go. In fact, I ended up spewing out all the stuff I normally had to cut from ‘proper’ applications, in a continuous stream of consciousness, and just sending it off. (The wonders of Spotlight – I’ve just found my application, and cringe slightly at the first line: “I am an ecologist by training; by inclination I am a 17th Century Natural Philosopher”; and so on…)

So anyway, somehow I got on it, and it changed my life.

The 2007 cohort was a group of around 30 early career researchers – from across the natural and social sciences, from academia and industry. A major part of Crucible’s success, then, came from providing a space for people from different disciplines to interact, to recognise common ground, to explore possible collaborations. Many of the more memorable sessions involved the interface of science and the arts, visual and sonic, and I think this brought home to me more than anything how creative good science can be.

But it was the social aspect more than anything that defined Crucible. In our departmentalised world, we seldom get the chance to sit down and talk to people from across disciplines, about the kinds of issues that affect us all (I guess NN and other networks provide a similar forum, but virtually, and with less beer). It was kind of how I imagine an idealised high table to be at an Oxbridge College – stimulating conversation with intelligent and articulate people.

Of course, in our impact obsessed world, NESTA needed evidence of outputs, but that kind of missed the point of Crucible. The output was the event itself, the conversations and network and friendships, the seeds of ideas sown. For interdisciplinary work, this is in fact half the battle. So although many of us were prepared to write glowing statements about the effect that Crucible had on us personally, tangible results were thin on the ground. And I suspect this is the major reason why Crucible was culled – despite near universtal positive feedback.

Now, Crucible lives on in Scotland and Wales, but the NESTA’s involvement has ceased. It would be great to think someone else might take up the challenge to organise something similar in the future – something residential, interdisciplinary, creative. Crucible widened my horizons and picked me up from the confidence slump I was in at the time, and it’s sad to see it pass.