Discussing the ‘State of Play’

Amy Seakins, Evaluation Coordinator at Imperial College London and Lizzy Baddeley, Public Engagement Coordinator at UCL, ran the first London PEN reading group in August, here they summarise some of the discussions. 

We kicked off the London PEN reading group discussions in August, and where better to start than by reflecting on the State of Play in public engagement in universities across the UK.

The report, commissioned by RCUK and Wellcome, was published last year and paints a positive picture of public engagement culture in universities and research institutions. Major investment in public engagement and inclusion in research policy has meant that engagement is now featured in more institutional strategies, missions and communications, and the majority of universities have a senior leader championing public engagement. Public engagement with research features in promotions and recruitment criteria in over two thirds of universities and researchers report that institutions are generally more supportive of this type of work.

However it identifies that there is still a way to go. Whilst engagement is increasingly a priority at the highest levels of leadership, researchers still report mixed levels of support from their immediate management and at a departmental level. Whilst more researchers feel that engagement is an important aspect of their role, there has only been a small increase in those actually participating in engagement over the past decade.

“We continue to see a mismatch between the steps that universities and funders have taken to embed PE and how these are actually experienced by researchers” p. 30

We reflected on our own experiences and roles in supporting further culture change in engagement. Here are the key questions we covered as we explored the findings in the paper, discussed the reasons behind the mismatch they report, and considered what we should do next.

Does it matter that researchers aren’t aware of external drivers for public engagement?

The report usefully compares public engagement with other initiatives in terms of culture change in universities such as Athena Swan and the REF. Knowledge about engagement initiatives was found to be much lower than these other programmes. However a key questions raised by the group was does it matter whether researchers know if their university has signed up to the Concordat for Public Engagement? Or that they haven’t heard of the NCCPE Watermark?

Perhaps not. Participation in national and international conversations of this kind are the responsibility of the institution, not individuals, as long as institutionalising these messages doesn’t detract from the change being implemented on the ground.

The fact is that researchers do know about other external initiatives that drive the culture of an institution, like Athena Swan. Does the difference come down where is money attached or there are consequences for not participating?

Where does accountability lie for public engagement?

The report shows that public engagement is now seen in most institutional strategies and is promoted at the highest levels of governance. There are resources for support centrally, and an increasing amount of initiatives to encourage engagement. However it is those in the middle management positions who truly enable (or prevent) public engagement work by researchers, not senior leaders. Lab leaders or heads of research teams ultimately decide what is a priority for those they work with, and what is not. In some cases the higher level support for engagement is not followed through at this level. How can we work in ways to bridge this gap?

Does it matter that public engagement support doesn’t look the same in each institution?

We’ve heard before on this blog about the various definitions for public engagement and the difficulty in pinning down exactly what it is. To the same extent, support for public engagement appears in so many different places and under many different names within research institutions. The report concludes that ‘the public engagement agenda is now more broad than it ever has been at any point in its history’ (p.7).

Across institutions, public engagement (if it’s even called that in the first place) might be in communications departments, academic centres, research strategy offices or as a separate central team, to name just a few. In the majority of cases those who support engagement do it as only part of their job and so face competing pressures on their time.

Would the professionalisation of public engagement help? Or is there strength in this diversity? Perhaps the way forward is to identify the key competencies and skills that are most useful in public engagement roles. This would help not only ourselves in our own professional development, but also for those recruiting and managing engagement enablers (whatever department they are based in). Some of this work has been explored by Ed Stevens from the University of Bath and you can read more in the Journal of Evidence & Policy: Development of a framework for knowledge mobilisation and impact competencies. (Warning the journal is behind a pay-wall)

Is changing the policy enough, if the attitudes remain the same?

We’ve battled and braved the worlds of promotions criteria and development reviews to get public engagement on the table. We’ve spent time and money establishing awards to recognise those who shine in their engagement work. As big as these achievements are, we know, and the report highlighted, that there is more to do to change the way people think around reward and recognition for engagement work.

The group shared stories of the engagement sections of appraisal forms being ignored, or concerns that getting a promotion because of your engagement activity ‘didn’t count’ or ‘wasn’t a proper promotion’. We knew that progress in this area would be slow. But ultimately, if engagement isn’t on the agenda for these types of reward and recognition we have no hope in making people take notice. UCL have included questions on engagement in their promotions criteria which are useful to look at if you’re starting off down this route and you can see how the University of East Anglia included engagement in promotions criteria here.

What do we do now?

We finished our discussions by sharing what we were going to do next, to keep moving in this positive direction.

Working at a departmental level. Public engagement has become evident at institutional level, and so now we need to work at supporting the leaders of departments and centres to help the ‘trickle down’ of support for, and participation in, these agendas. We talked about ideas such as awards for departments doing excellent engagement work, or tailored training to take into account specific departmental subject area needs.   

Adopting the term ‘Engaged Researcher’? Is this term, highlighted in the report, helpful? Or does it narrow the understanding of what engagement is and can be? We spoke about disciplinary differences here – the fact that some researchers, due to the nature of their research topic, might be carrying out engagement anyway but just not see it as so. Does this matter? Is engagement only valuable if researchers know that’s what they are doing?

Pledging to understand the perspectives of researchers in more depth. Others in the group felt that the way to addressing some of the areas where culture change had slowed or been limited was to understand more about the researchers themselves, through embedding in their processes and practices. Through reflecting on the field from the perspectives of the researchers themselves, we can better reflect on what training needs we should focus on, or where disciplinary differences exist (we touched on the difference between STEM as compared to the humanities say, see Michael’s blog for more on this).

So there are definite and encouraging signs of movement, even though at times it may feel like trying to change the culture within your institution is slow and difficult. The questions the State of Play report throws up highlight just some of the possibilities for future progress.

Further reading:

Owen, D., Featherstone, H., and Leslie, K. (2016) The State of Play: Public Engagement with Research in UK Universities. Report commissioned by RCUK and The Wellcome Trust.


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