Engaging Citizens 2010
Was it the enthusiastic welcome given by the OU's new and dynamic VC Martin Bean? Was it the quality of the invited speakers, the range of topics on offer, the bright Spring sunshine or simply a collective desire to learn more about the role of media in engaging publics with research? Whatever the primary reason, this NCCPE/OU/BBC workshop bought out the best in the delegates who came to the fully-booked day at the OU in March.
Hosted by Paul Manners and Brigid Heywood (PVC Research and Enterprise, OU), the day was set up to bring both seasoned practitioners and new converts together to explore public engagement and its reach through the use of both traditional and non-traditional media. After an enthusiastic welcome from Martin Bean, who stated that engagement by the public with research is the only way to solve some of the big challenges facing society today, the three invited guests each presented their own view of how to use the media to engage people with research.
Cambridge University's Professor of Classics Mary Beard, who has excellent credentials for engaging the public in classical history through her many books, broadcasts and blog, talked about how important the media was in public engagement because it means that thousands, if not millions of people - regardless of their postcode- can benefit from the knowledge she and her fellow classicists have gained through research, rather than just the few hundred who attend lectures. She encouraged delegates to remember radio when thinking about getting their message across, explaining how comparatively quick and easy it is compared with the highly competitive and drawn out process of television.
The BBC's Martin Davidson, Commissioning Editor for Specialist Factual programmes spoke next. As the person responsible for series such as Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work; Atom; Science And Islam; The Genius Of Photography; Andrew Marr's The Making Of Modern Britain, and Bang Goes The Theory!, he knows only too well the difficulties academics face. He shared his insight into what the delegates needed to do to get broadcasters interested in a subject, as well as defend the media's practice of asking academics to give up their time and hard-won knowledge for no financial reward, but went on to explain that this should be less of a problem now that Google can provide many of the answers…A discussion point in itself.
Tristram Hunt, broadcaster, columnist and lecturer on Modern British History at Queen Mary, University of London, continued on the theme of reach. He used a quote from the Bush presidential campaign, 'the soft bigotry of low expectations', to illustrate that if we dumb down or transform content to meet a middle class perception of the needs of others, we succeed only in patronising them.
Questions to the panel and feedback from the audience led onto lively discussions during the walk through the gardens of the OU campus to the Old Lecture Theatre, now named the Hub, for lunch and the afternoon workshops.
As they sat down to eat, the delegates were asked to think about the next session. Each delegate had to choose two out of the 15 Taster Case Study Discussion groups that had been sent in by delegates prior to the event.
With topics that ranged from catalysts for new partnerships between the worlds of academia and broadcast media, to exploring how audience research informed the BBC's public engagement with nature, there was no sign of the traditional post-lunch slump as delegates settled into the discussions. These included:
- Ideas Lab: Lucy Vernall (Ideas Lab)
- Obesity Champions: Eliot Marsden (Birmingham University)
- Bang Goes the Theory Q&A: Stephen Sarjeant (OU), Jonathan Sanderson (NCCPE)
- Creative Climate: Joe Smith (OU)
- COMIXED: Sam Gray (Manchester Beacon for Public Engagement)
- Child of Our Time: Dinah Lord (BBC), John Oates (OU)
- Silverville: Julian Mercer (BBC), Sheila Peace (OU)
- Open Arts Archive: Gill Perry (OU)
- Inside Out Festival: Sally Taylor, LCACE
- Evolution MegaLab: Peter Skelton (OU)
- Lab UK: Nina Bell (BBC), Peter Harvey (BBC)
- Engaging with radio: Deborah Cohen (BBC)
- A History of Christianity: Marion Bowman (OU)
- Breathing Places: Hugh Hopestone
Only eight places were available in each discussion group, and a strict[ish] 20 minute time limit produced a fast and focused exchange of ideas and information.
Each group was then asked to prepare for the final session: the Big Question. This was the opportunity to use the combined expertise of the delegates to get help on a particular project or an opportunity they wanted to develop. Brigid Heywood used her considerable organisational skills to shepherd people into small groups to discuss these questions and nominate a spokesperson to feedback the outcome and a headline recommendation to the panel. The feedback from those who had posed the questions was very positive. Paul Manners ended the session with the very welcome announcement that development funding was available to take ideas forward and encouraged delegates to apply for it.
The day was summed up by Paul and Brigid, with input from delegates and a discussion on the way forward. On that point, Paul invited delegates to attend the NCCPE Engagement Conference in December 2010.
During the drinks reception that followed, many delegates expressed their appreciation of the day, saying they found it interesting, informative and… what could be better?... engaging.
We'd like to express our thanks to everyone who came for helping to make it such a success and to those who have helped spread the word through tweets, blogs and various other social networking sites.
As Paul explained afterwards "It was a really interesting mix of people with an incredible range of ideas and experiences. We set the day up to be interactive and it was. Coffee and lunch breaks were longer than is usual to allow delegates to discuss their own experiences, to find out what others are doing, ask for support for their own projects and to get inspiration to put their ideas into practice."