Gareth Davies from The Open University reports on his time at the Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference.
It was a real honour to have the opportunity to attend the 13th PCST conference, in Brazil. This was made possible through funds I received via the NCCPE PEA scheme and the Santander funding scheme. Many participants (over 60%) were from developing countries, so it was a real opportunity to get a culturally diverse perspective of how public engagement was valued. There were numerous opportunities to network in the 4 plenary sessions, 53 panels, 170 oral presentations, 60 posters, 15 videos, 6 artistic performances and also two pre-event workshops (access to abstracts). I was attending the conference as part of my role at The Open University on the School University Partnership Initiative (SUPI) and the Public Engagement with Research (PER) Catalyst projects; presenting the results from our action-research evaluation of our media training programme that had been run in collaboration with the Denbigh Teaching School Alliance (DTSA), in Milton Keynes.
With my evaluation head screwed on I wanted to know whether other nations ran similar PER projects and what benefits and challenges they perceived to be related to the evaluation of their engagement opportunities. With the number of panels, plenary sessions and oral presentation it wasn’t possible to attend all the talks, so I tried to target those talks that seemed particularly relevant to PER and schools-university engagement. This was a bit hit-and-miss given that the sessions were designed to cover a breadth of topics around a particular area but the coffee sessions after the talks and particularly the poster sessions were a great opportunity to quiz the researchers. I focused my attention on asking whether they knew of any equitant PER projects (similar to the SUPI and the PER Catalyst project), in their countries and generally what pressure they were under to evaluate their public engagement opportunities.
I was expecting culture to shift the goal posts and in some cases make them disappear altogether but I found it surprising that PER wasn’t on the agenda for the majority of researchers I spoke to and there was little evidence that evaluation was being systematically planned or carried-out. Having said that, it was motivating that everyone I spoke to saw the value of evaluation and that the majority expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to develop their own evaluation frameworks. It was also motivating to see that the challenges we face as we plan our evaluation are not so uncommon and that recognising our strengths could open up opportunities for collaboration; for example, between the UK (who appear in many ways to be at the cutting edge of PER and its evaluation) and Brazil (who have a unique multicultural perspective to offer on how to effectively engage a diverse set of publics).
I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to attend the conference. Going to Brazil was a big bonus but the real highlight was the networking and the lessons I learnt about the issues we have in common. Since returning from Brazil I have used the experience to spur me on to develop a conceptual framework aimed at helping researchers and practitioners to think through issues relating to the development of bespoke evaluation frameworks. At the OU we have also used the contacts we made to explore a couple of interesting and innovative research opportunities with a Brazilian institution.
If you are interested in learning more about PCST or would like to read the abstract presented at the 2014 conference in Brazil please visit their website or view the highlights on the PCST blog, the PCST twitter account (#pcst2014) or the PCST Facebook page.