Doing and enabling

In our communications for EMBL, we have traditionally highlighted what EMBL does: research, training, services and so on. As I have said before, what EMBL does in each of these areas is not unique in the life sciences. Efforts to describe what we do as unique will therefore rely on things that are difficult to substantiate such as, “EMBL strives for excellence” or “the EMBL spirit is unique”. I’m not saying that these things are not true, but they are not tangible and they are difficult to describe and justify. So what tangible thing or things might we use to differentiate and position EMBL?

Where I think EMBL really stands out is that it is uniquely connected. Just think of our six sites, for instance, and of all the institutes, companies, organisations and collaborations we are either in proximity or actively engaged with through our sites. Here are just a few:

  • The Parc Recerca Biomèdica Barcelona (PRBB) and notably the CRG
  • The EPN campus, including the ESRF
  • The Wellcome Genome campus, including the Sanger Institute, not to mention nearby Cambridge and its thriving biotech research environment and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
  • DESY and its community
  • Heidelberg and its research centres, including the world-renowned university and the DKFZ

This shortlist is an astonishing range of world-leading research institutes and infrastructures, which, between them, host tens of thousands of researchers. This list doesn’t include our scientific collaborations with leading institutes around the world, the more than 7,000 researchers across the globe that are proud to be EMBL alumni or the strong partnerships that EMBL supports in many ways.

EMBL scientists collaborate with scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs from all these places and more. EMBL also supports these places by training scientists (through EMBL’s excellent training offerings but also by hosting early career scientists for a fixed period) and by offering world-class services from crystallography to bioinformatics. If we zoom out, therefore, and consider EMBL in the context of all these other institutes to which we are connected, rather than looking merely within the organisation, I see EMBL fulfilling a rather unique role in enabling great life-science research. EMBL fuels an entire field!

What if we were to focus on what we enable as much as what we do? What would this imply for our communications?

I think one of the most obvious shifts we would have to make is that we’d start talking about others more. As an organisation, we’d need to look outwards, not inwards.

I have had many, many discussions with colleagues within our team and with stakeholders beyond the team about the future direction of the EMBL brand. Most of these discussions have focussed on who we are as an organisation and what we do. If we shifted our attention outwards, we could move away, for instance, from discussions of how we are structured and what we do, and talk about the positive things we enable – often, elsewhere.

The risk with communications based on an enabling role over a doing role are that we would find it challenging to label precisely what contribution to any given thing EMBL has made (it would be a huge challenge to even informed about our contributions!). The benefits of doing so is that we could demonstrate such a broad range of great science that we’ve had a part in enabling and focus on the impact of what we do. It would also permit us to draw a common thread through the broad variety of activities in which EMBL engages, which, as a whole, currently risks appearing disparate and disjointed.

Jacques Dubochet recently donated a copy of his Nobel medal to EMBL. It was accompanied by a letter in which he wrote:

“I am pleased to offer this copy of my Nobel medal to EMBL in testimony of my great thankfulness to an institution that, in my view, would deserve to be the laureate of the Prize.”

I read Dubochet’s note as giving EMBL credit not just for hosting him when he did his work, but, more broadly, as enabling it.

While we celebrate EMBL’s role in Dubochet’s Nobel work, we are less vocal in other stories in which EMBL has a part. Take, for instance, the work of Emmanuelle Charpentier, co-inventor of CRISPR-Cas9, alumna of the EMBL Nordic Partnership. The gene-editing technology is revolutionary and promises to accelerate and even redefine all sorts of areas of research, and yet we don’t claim it as an EMBL success story. Without appropriating it, is it a stretch to say that EMBL had a role in enabling this work?

‘Without appropriating it’ is key here. If we really follow the route of communicating around EMBL’s role as an enabler, we need to let go of the sense of ‘our’ work, just as we have to let go of the sense of ‘theirs’. We would need to move to a position where we celebrate the work of the entire field.

The implications of moving to communications on our role as enablers are far reaching, but I believe that the potential benefits are enormous. We would have to actively engage with all our partners – starting, perhaps, right next door with our sister organisation, EMBO – and communicate about, with and through them. Just imagine the possibilities…

Author: Dan Noyes

I joined EMBL in February 2016, where I am now the Joint Head of the Strategy and Communications team. I'm interested in communications strategy development and solving the problems of how communications works in practice in large organisations.

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