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Images of Research

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Who: Early career researchers, academics and technical support staff from all disciplines at the University of Manchester.

What: A competition combining a visual element and story to provide insight into research.

Why: To encourage researchers to think about wider impact and implications of their research.

Where: The exhibition hosted was hosted online and at the John Rylands Library Deansgate and the Science Spectacular, in Whitworth Hall at The University of Manchester.

When: Competition submissions opened in August 2011, with shortlisted photos being exhibited during October and winners announced in November 2011.

Project description

“An image often says a thousand words, so I thought the use of images was a great way to gain public interest.”  Photography competition entrant

The Images of Research competition aimed to exhibit the diverse research taking place at the University and engage everyone in the excitement and wonder of new discoveries and developments. It was about taking university research out to the public and showing how that research has a meaning for all of us. The themes - people, culture and environment provided researchers with an opportunity to frame what this impact might mean for the public.

Each photograph represented the subject of the research or the experience of conducting research. The images were accompanied by a short explanation written for non-specialist audiences. The combination of a visual element and story provided a powerful medium for communicating the research.

The Manchester Science Festival (running 22 –30 October 2011) enabled the competition to reach the thousands of visitors who would visit Manchester to take part any number of the festival events and the general public were invited to vote for the best image and associated abstract.

Having based the competition on a model tried and tested at the University of Bath, it was felt that the competition would attract the interest of our research community.

“We ran this activity as a pilot so that we could learn lessons for a bigger scale event in future years. We also wanted to be inclusive of all research disciplines across the University.” Dee-Ann Johnson


  • Improve researchers’ ability to communicate their research to non-specialist audiences and increase confidence to get involved in public engagement.
  • Develop the skills that will enable researchers to explain, debate, discuss and be challenged about their research and to consider wider implications of their work.
  • Encourage cross discipline interactions and discussions between researchers.
  • Raise the profile of the university, its research and people. Excite the interest and curiosity of people outside of academia by sharing research (that often takes place behind closed doors) through an engaging and interactive opportunity.

Results and outcomes

 Fresh light on the PastOverall winner: Fresh Light on the Past by Dr Lindy Crewe, Lecturer in Archaeology, Research Fellow Manchester Museum




What worked well

  • Researchers from across the Sciences, Arts, and Humanities took part in the competition.
  • 18 entries were shortlisted for the public exhibition (from a possible 42 entries)
  • Over 5,000 public votes were cast (online and face to face)
  • The BBC News Online picked up the competition. They featured images that fitted with an environmental focus.
  • There was significantly more interest from researchers in the Humanities than anticipated. This was especially exciting as previous public engagement activities have been viewed as having too much emphasis on “science communication” and therefore not relevant.
  • Academics from other universities across Greater Manchester contacted us to see if they could enter the competition.
  • The activity took place as part of the Manchester Science Festival, this provided both an excellent opportunity for engaging a diverse range of audiences and as well as a platform for promotion and interest.

Lessons learned

  • There is an interest from researchers in taking part in public engagement opportunities, however they need to be supported to do so, and the process needs to be easy and straightforward.
  • Though we ran this a pilot exercise, we hadn’t built in enough lead-time for shortlisting and printing the images. It was a close call to hit our published deadlines for the exhibition.
  • Events of this nature need collaborative effort, both in terms of organisation and logistics, as well as promotion and support.
  • More categories could be included so that similar images could be judged for the quality of the photograph/subject matter.
  • Create an opportunity for the public to meet the researchers behind the images to further discuss the social, ethical and cultural aspects of their work, for example through a preview event.


The Science Spectacular website was developed to help promote and showcase the diverse range of activities undertaken by staff and students as part of the Manchester Science Festival 2011. The site also hosted entries for the Images of Research competition.

Top Tips

  • Science festivals can provide a great opportunity within which to run your own public engagement initiatives, helping to both promote and showcase your unique offering.
  • Seek out opportunities to display your activity or event in ‘unlikely’ settings. The Library provided access to audiences who wouldn’t typically attend a science related event.
  • If it’s the first time you are running an activity, with limited resources, then keep your plans manageable. It is better to do something like this very well on a small scale.
  • Identify the legacy of the public engagement initiative, the photographs are now part of the University’s image library and used in a range of publications and the exhibition is displayed at Widening Participation events throughout the year.


Name: Dee-Ann Johnson

Name of organisation: The University of Manchester


Telephone: 0161 306 4155


Twitter: @epsgrads