Why the Crick centre?

The Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics is named after Sir Bernard Crick who was not only the Founding Professor of the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield in 1965 but who was also the author of the classic book ‘In Defence of Politics’ (1962) and later persuaded the Labour government of the benefits of introducing citizenship education as a compulsory element of the national curriculum. Prof. Crick was also influential in terms of stimulating a debate about the evolution of the discipline of political science and its link with society more broadly. This link was the focus of his essay ‘A Rallying Cry to the University Professors of Politics’


What is the Crick Centre really about?

At base the Crick Centre exists in order to bridge a number of gaps that appear to have emerged in recent decades (if not before). The first gap concerns  the relationship between the governors and the governed in democratic countries. This ‘gap’ is reflected in a huge amount of scholarship on ‘disaffected democrats’ and ‘why we hate politics’. In truth, however, very few members of the public ‘hate’ politics or politicians and it is closer to the truth to suggest that they no longer understand how politics works or why it matters. The second gap that the Crick Centre hopes to bridge relates to the relationship between higher education and the public. The relationship between society and the universities is changing as the former quite rightly demands much more of the latter. This has been reflected in a wide-ranging debate about ‘relevance’ and ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ vis-a-vis a range of disciplines. The Crick Centre is founded on the notion of public scholarship and seeks to produce research that ‘speaks to multiple publics in multiple ways’  (to borrow Michael Burawoy’s phrase).

Although this sounds like a terrible piece of jargon the Crick Centre is really attempting to provide what might be termed a ‘nexus institution’ in the sense of forging positive new relationships across and between three social spheres – the universities (‘why does your research matter?’), politics (‘what do politicians  actually do and why?’) and the public (‘what should we expect of a citizen in terms of social obligations or responsibilities?’).   These three are bridged through a range of activities – some involving fresh academic research, some involving public debates and engagement activities, some involving new training and skills-development opportunities to equip all the actors (academics, politicians and the public) with an opportunity to learn from each other.


What is the Crick Centre not about?

The Crick Centre is not about telling people or groups what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ . It is not interested in telling anyone who to vote for or what not to buy from the supermarket. There are no simple solutions to complex problems and therefore the various activities of the centre are all concerned with understanding the challenges of modern democratic governance and then promoting a mature discussion about those challenges. The Crick Centre may from time-to-time organise specific research projects or public engagement events on specific issues, decisions or controversies and this might involve representatives from across the political spectrum but the position of the Crick Centre is broadly neutral in the sense that is works to create ‘safe spaces’ in which debates and arguments can take place and to ensure those events are informed by the very best research, thinking and writing.


How does the Crick Centre define ‘Politics’?

This is a critical question for the values and ambitions of the Crick Centre. Our definition of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ is very broad in the sense that it encompasses all those shared challenges and issues that concern society as a whole. Therefore although the Crick Centre is interested in what might be termed ‘big P’ politics (voting, parliamentary reform, political apathy, strikes and social protests, etc.) it is also interested in what could be termed  ’small p’ issues that although not directly concerned with political processes, political institutions or politicians are no less relevant in terms of their social impact.  This might include issues concerning family welfare and breakdown, it might concern the public funding of the arts or new scientific advances that pose new moral dilemmas for society;  it might include issues surrounding corruption and economic development in Africa or it might concern the on-line behaviour of just one individual; it might look at cultural intolerance across periods of history or places in the world or even seek to explore the nature of the social, economic or political challenges that are likely to shape the next century. This definition matters because it reflects the inclusive and creative nature of the Crick Centre. Our aim is to open-up new debates, not close them down.


How does the Crick Centre reach-out beyond political science?

The aim of the Crick Centre is to communicate social science to the public – or the social implications of ‘hard’ scientific advances  - without, in doing so, losing those elements of scholarship that provide depth and context. It achieves this by adopting a broad definition of politics that embraces all other disciplines in terms of their social relevance and potential impact. The Crick Centre is therefore keen to act as a resource for scholars from any discipline and to act as a conduit or hub through which new research projects can be stimulated and through which creative new forms of public engagement can be launched. In terms of ‘pathways to impact’ and a demonstrable audit-trail the Crick Centre can offer support in terms of access to our resident artist, philosopher and (from 2014) lyricist; the centre will be offering accredited training courses for academics on ‘Managing the Media’, ‘Engaging with Parliament’, ‘Working with Young People’, ‘Public Scholarship’ and ‘Triple Writing’ and a host of other topics that will utilise industry leaders and practitioners in order to deliver practical skills; the Crick Centre will also sit at the centre of a vast network of public, private and third sector organisations that are keen to develop partnerships with academics around the creation of theoretically-informed policy-relevant research.


Is the Crick Centre just interested in British politics?

No, not at all. The Crick Centre is interested in issues of democratic reform, engagement and renewal all over the year and is currently recruiting a number of international associates who will feed into the work of the centre. The Crick Centre is also committed to injecting a greater comparative and international perspective into those debates that tend to dominate British politics (public debt, immigration, crime and policing, etc.) in order to improve both the standard of scholarship and public debate.


Who does the Crick Centre work with in terms of partners?

The Crick Centre is currently working with a number of academic and non-academic partners in order to increase its own capacity while also adding positive value to the organisations it works with. The Crick Centre is currently exploring the possibility of partnership agreements with a number of universities and public organisations around the world.


Isn’t there a danger that the Crick Centre is just too tame,  soft and accepting of established politics?

Yes, this is always a danger but the aim of the Crick Centre is not to breed acceptance of the status quo but to provide an arena in which radical and critical perspectives can be voiced and discussed. This is an important issue in relation to the whole notion of public scholarship and the increasing demand that academics demonstrate ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’. Scholars must reject any attempt to tie their research and writing to instrumental outputs that implicitly support any one social structure but at the same time (re-thought and re-framed) the social demand for scholarly insights creates new opportunities for critical or radical scholars to ‘step into the arena’. One of the problems with how higher education has evolved in recent years, however, is that it has not given academics those basic social and communicative skills that they need in order to be able to frame their arguments in an accessible manner. This is why the Crick Centre will offer such a strong and unique skills-development component.  The whole ethos of the Crick Centre is about promoting and enabling a broad range of views and encouraging disconnected sections of the community to re-engage through either conventional or unconventional means (or both).


Isn’t the ‘Public Understanding’ element of the Crick Centre’s name about three decades out of date?

This is a good question that came to use via a twitter feed and it does encapsulate a really important issue about the goals and ambitions of the centre. The simple fact is that we spent a long time trying to come up with a name that would encapsulate what the Crick Centre wanted to do but in the end we kept coming back to the current title. Yes, I can understand why some people might think it is a little dated and that is also brings with it certain paternalistic undertones that actually work against the ambitions of the Crick Centre. After one particularly frustrating meeting with politicians the Centre’s Director, Matt Flinders, did suggest calling it the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Political Understanding of the Public! A more serious response would offer a link with the aims and ambitions of the Crick Centre and those of the Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science that was established in 1995. The aim of the Crick Centre echo those of the Simonyi Chair in the sense that they seek to communicate social science to the public – or the social implications of ‘hard’ scientific advances  - without, in doing so, losing those elements of scholarship that provide depth and context.


Can I get involved?

Yes, the Crick Centre depends on the energy and creativity of its staff, associates and engaged members of the public. Email the Crick Centre on crick@sheffield.ac.uk in order to join our mailing list, keep an eye on our website for future events and if we are not doing something that you would really like to see happening then get in touch.


What will the Artist, Philosopher and Lyricist in Residence actually do?

This is a good question and to be honest we are not too sure ourselves at the moment. However, the whole idea of offering a number of ‘residencies’ is to develop the creative engagement capacity of the Crick Centre in a way that academics from a range of disciplines can utilise. There is a strong tradition of art and music being deployed as a critical form of political communication but there is also a need to explore new mediums (on-line or off-line) in terms of their capacity to connect, inform and provoke. At a more practical level the Artist in Residence, Jane Laurie, will be involved in some of our national competitions for young people, the Philosopher in Residence will work with specific sections of the community to reveal exactly why political philosophy matters and why it is arguably more relevant than ever in the twenty-first century. We will be holding a national competition in 2014 for a Lyricist in Residence (some have suggested the phrase ‘wordsmith’ would be better) and this might be a playwrite, song-writer, novelist, story-teller, comedian, etc. If you have any suggestions for what the individuals holding these residencies might do then please contact the Crick Centre.


What if the Crick Centre fails to achieve its objectives?

As with any new venture in any aspect of social life, failure is always a possibility and the business management model has to achieve a fine balance between ambition and realism. However, there is currently a ‘window of opportunity’ in both academic and social terms that make this project an incredibly timely venture with great long-term potential. Moreover, the project will take its inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech and his belief that the real credit goes to the men and women who try and make a difference and do things that other people believe are not possible. In essence, the Crick Centre is all about creating a new arena for all people.