quality practice

Improving funding models for public engagement with STEM

updated on 20 Oct 2023
4 minutes

David Owen, NCCPE Associate, provides an insight into recent work being led by members of the National Forum for Public Engagement for STEM.

Child inspecting a plant

David Owen, NCCPE Associate, provides an insight into recent work being led by members of the National Forum for Public Engagement for STEM.

The National Forum is committed to creating an environment for Public Engagement with STEM to flourish. Collectively they are working to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, to increase scientific literacy and improve social equality outcomes. 

Everyone wants to be brilliant at what they do. Organisations want to have the right skill sets and capabilities in their team, they want to be able to forge partnerships that help them reach new audiences and improve the quality and reach of activity. They want to be able measure and demonstrate their impact and use evaluation for continuous improvement. There isn’t a funder who isn’t interested investing in developing these capabilities. Funders want to work with grantees so that can help them generate greater social return on investments, and to demonstrate the impact of their work to others.

However, are there ways in which funders are inadvertently encouraging a culture that is working against these aims? We recently invited Shift Design to come to talk to us about the work they are doing in the Social Tech sector to drive innovation. They have completed a project to examine how funders and social organisations can work together better to ensure that progress and improvement of social products, services and programmes is given adequate attention. They identified some familiar challenges and issues:

"The culture and capacity of the social sector, and the priorities of most of the capital that sustains it, is almost entirely focused on short-term targets. The idea that the products, services and programmes used for this delivery are all on a longer-term journey towards deeper impact and greater sustainability, is mostly lost beneath the demands of existing and delivering"

Do you recognise this? It certainly resonated with the Forum members when we met in June earlier this year.

Shift Design have proposed, with the backing of 8 different funders, the development of a shared ‘innovation framework’ that will be used to scaffold more productive, long term planning, delivery and evaluation of activity. This differentiates between three types of funding:

  • Unrestricted or core funding – for investing in the skills, capabilities and sustainability of organisations
  • Innovation funding – for investments in the iterative development of new products, services or interventions
  • Outcome funding – for investment in the ability of a service of organisation to deliver impact

They argue that differentiating types of funding in this way will create much more efficiency. It will also encourage a much more open and reflective culture:

"Because of more honest and transparent relationships, more free-flowing measurement data and more skills and confidence across the sector, there is much greater learning and improvement across networks"

You can find out more about the underpinning research to this work from their report driving continuous improvement: Insights from funding social tech. You may also be interested in Progressively a new model being proposed to help social products, services and programmes make progress towards deep and lasting impact.

A key focus for the National Forum is to try to make our collective efforts and funding work harder. Shift Design’s work provides a constructive insight into challenges that we’re trying to work through. One idea that was proposed is to develop a shared investment framework for public engagement with STEM to help guide our collective efforts. Such a framework might: 

  • Differentiate between the different types of investment needed to stimulate innovation and impact (e.g. innovation vs outcome funding)
  • Articulate shared expectations about what success would look like in each area, and common data that might be captured to monitor our progress
  • Allow more transparent and rigorous planning and assessment of our collective efforts, for instance allowing different funders to invest in different parts of the system

Could you see such a framework making a difference to your work? You can stay in touch with the National Forum by signing up to the NCCPE's newsletter.

David Owen, Secretariat, National Forum for Public Engagement with STEM