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9th June, 2016

New STEAM age: Challenging the STEM agenda in research

The Culture Capital Exchange

In November 2015, at St George’s House in Windsor Castle, The Culture Capital Exchange (TCCE) drew together a group of experts from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines to debate the issues raised by the UK government’s STEM research agenda – a policy of promoting education and research in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths over and above those of the arts and humanities.

We called it the STEM/STEAM debate, based on the hope that the arts and humanities might take their place within the roll-call of subjects to whose promotion policymakers might give special attention – changing the agenda from STEM to STEAM.

In this publication you will find transcriptions of the keynote speeches given on that night, and a series of essays commissioned from some of the scientists, artists, academics, engineers and captains of industry in attendance. As you will read for yourself, most attendees agreed that the key challenges of the 21st Century – challenges such as climate change, mass migration and an aging population – are human problems more than narrowly technological challenges, and that formulating solutions to them will require a multi-disciplinary approach. More prosaically, you will hear engineers and industrialists make the case that creativity is an essential component of commercial success – and, in some ways, the last great British export.

This debate is not a new one: high-profile artists, writers and engineers, think-tanks and advocacy organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have for some time been lobbying for a move towards a STEAM agenda, presenting seemingly irrefutable evidence of the importance of the arts and humanities in education and research. However, with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), and the growing disparity in funding research in STEM subjects versus the arts and humanities, a STEAM agenda seems further away than ever.

Why, therefore, did we feel that an organisation such as TCCE should wade into this somewhat crowded public debate? What could we bring to the table to move the quest for a STEAM agenda forward?

Firstly, as an organisation that has been operating in the very fertile ground between higher education research, the creative and cultural industries, and business for the past ten years, we have a unique network spanning all these sectors and beyond. This meant that we were able to bring together an influential and singularly diverse group of people that few other organisations could get together in the same room. With their wide-ranging specialisms and long experience of arts, academia and everything else, they were there to consider the thorny issue of how, and indeed if, we should pursue a STEAM agenda – and, if so, how might we be able to work together to achieve it?

Secondly, our decade-long experience as brokers and facilitators working at the cutting edge of knowledge exchange has given us a deep practical appreciation for the way in which change almost always happens in small steps, in a consensual, slow, bottom-up manner, through small advances, partnerships and alliances between like-minded people and institutions. This approach can often be more effective than the top-down approaches of lobbying, rousing speeches, and letters to the editor. On that rainy November night, we received some very practical insights on how TCCE can work with our network to sow the seeds of a ‘Velvet Revolution’ towards a STEAM agenda.

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