Public engagement is not a new idea. It is hard to find a university whose founding mission didn’t include commitment to civic or public service. There are long traditions of supporting lifelong learning and community development. Public engagement, as a term, appeared in the UK higher education policy lexicon in the early 2000s, linked to debates about science and society. It was argued that we needed to move beyond ‘public understanding’ (implying a deficit in the public) to ‘public engagement’, which emphasises dialogue and mutuality.
More recently, austerity, the Brexit vote and US politics have put increasing pressure on universities to find new ways of responding to intense public scrutiny.
These challenges include:
People’s distrust of experts / evidence in a ‘post-truth’ era
Significant social divisions including a risk of ‘us and them’ division in terms of values, worldview and economic status
A distrust of ‘others’, especially in terms of migration
Calls for more transparency and accountability – for instance in relation to vice chancellors’ pay, or the cost of university courses – are growing more intense. In this context, the case for effective public engagement becomes increasingly urgent.
This section provides a quick guide to the current policy landscape, and the key policy interventions which incentivise public engagement.
The Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research, the Researcher Development Framework and other policy instruments
The Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research was developed by the UK’s research funding bodies in 2010. It expresses a single statement of expectations and responsibilities of research funders in the UK and describes their expectations of the institutions they fund:
UK research organisations have a strategic commitment to public engagement
Researchers are recognised and valued for their involvement with public engagement activities
Researchers are enabled to participate in public engagement activities through appropriate training, support and opportunities
The Researcher Development Framework describes the key skills, attributes and knowledge researchers need. It identifies ‘Engagement and Impact’ as one of the key areas in which successful researchers need to excel.
A range of other mechanisms are used by research funders to encourage high quality public engagement. Research Council UK (RCUK)’s Quality Assurance process includes questions linked to the Concordat. Funders like Wellcome and the Medical Research Council regularly review the public engagement activity of institutions and centres that they fund.
Pathways to Impact and the REF
Since the 2000s, research assessment has scrutinised not just the quality of the research, but also its impact on society. The research councils expect all bids to include a Pathways to Impact statement to outline describe the potential beneficiaries of the research, and the process researchers undertake to ensure that their research makes a difference. Public engagement is identified as a key route to realising impact.
Likewise, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) encourages researchers to submit impact case studies which feature public engagement. The National Co-ordinating Centre of Public Engagement (NCCPE)'s REF 2014 impact case study review concluded that nearly half of all impact case studies submitted featured some mention of public engagement. The Stern review, which is shaping the next REF, recommended that 'impacts on public engagement and understanding are emphasised and that impacts on cultural life be specifically included'.
Most institutions also feature their support for public engagement in the environment section of the REF, outlining their strategies for supporting collaboration with organisations beyond higher education. You can find out more here.
The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is firmly focussed on student learning. Within the Provider Statement, institutions are invited to spell out how they support that learning. Many universities are choosing to reference the ways in which they are supporting ‘engaged learning’ here – the opportunities they provide for students to engage in learning in communities beyond the classroom.
The formation of UKRI
The research funding landscape is being re-shaped with the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The Nurse review, which paved the way for the formation of UKRI, affirmed engaging with the public as one of the three core elements of national research strategy: 'For a national research endeavour to be successful there needs to be an effective dialogue and understanding between research scientists, politicians and the public.'
This view is echoed in UKRI’s Chief Executive, Sir Mark Walport’s framing of UKRI’s purpose, in which societal impact ('supporting our society to become stronger and healthier') is one of the organisation’s three pillars. Sir Mark has identified the important role of public engagement for UKRI, highlighting the decline of trust in the establishment and experts; the role of social media; globalisation, and the challenging intersection of science and values in a rapidly changing society.
A joined up approach to public engagement across government
The current government continues to recognise the vital contribution of public engagement to good governance of research. BEIS (the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) has a Public Engagement in Science team. The NCCPE works closely with this team in two capacities: as the Secretariat for the National Forum for Public Engagement with STEM, and as a partner in the delivery of the Sciencewise programme. There is an increasing recognition of the importance of engagement between researchers, policy makers and the public to inform robust and socially-sensitive policy, confirmed in the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s enquiry into Science Communication, which recommended:
"The Government has the primary responsibility for fostering and facilitating science engagement in its policy-making. It should maintain and strengthen national programmes such as Sciencewise and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Their programmes should be routinely used across all government departments, so that public opinion is fully captured in developing government policy where science is involved."