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Places to start: opportunities for public engagement

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Where: Edinburgh

What: Providing opportunities for staff and students to do public engagement

Initial routes in:

  • Thinking about research in a wider context: Press Gang
  • Training with a practical element: Research Communication in Action
  • Paid activities for PhD students: Postgraduate Science Communication Team
  • Student societies: ideas for involving the student communit
  • Linking to other established events in your area: Festivals

Larger programmes:

  • The Edinburgh Beltane Public Engagement Fellowship Scheme
  • The Edinburgh Beltane Public Engagement Challenge Fund

When: 2008–2012 for the Beltane programmes; the others are ongoing

Why: Trying public engagement, making mistakes and thinking about how to improve next time is a fundamental part of professional development in public engagement

Who: These examples are aimed at staff and students within an institution who are interested in public engagement


“One must learn by doing the thing; for though you think you know it, you have no certainty, until you try.” Sophocles

It is important that staff and students within an institution have access to training, but is vital that they also have opportunities to ‘do’ public engagement. This presents a number of challenges from an institution’s perspective. Opportunities need to appeal to people from different disciplines, varying levels of experience, and a range of interests; and there are financial considerations. Although ‘taster’ activities can be relatively straightforward and cheap to organise, more extensive programmes can be more expensive and often require dedicated staff.

This case study focuses on some of the routes staff and students at the University of Edinburgh have followed to gain experience in public engagement. Many of these initiatives were set up by an individual or small group within the institution and have become more established over the years. The activities described can be adapted to be used in other institutions, and they also provide an insight into making current activities within an institution more sustainable.

Project description

The following examples are some established initiatives that have worked well at the University of Edinburgh, starting with smaller scale introductory activities, to larger programmes:

1. Press Gang – thinking about research in a wider context

The School of Biological Sciences set up a ‘Press Gang’ for staff and students (primarily PhD students and Post Docs) interested in sharing the latest research happening in the School with a wider audience. The Press Gang is coordinated by two academic staff members who arrange quarterly meetings and invite colleagues in the university press office. Press Gang members give updates on what’s happening and then explore potential media opportunities, or links with other public engagement projects. There is an obvious PR element to this, but it does help people think about their research in a wider context. A number of other schools and research centres have since set up their own press gangs.

2. Research Communication in Action - training with a practical element

This programme is aimed at PhD students from any discipline. People are invited to attend an initial training day, participate in a public engagement project and then attend a review session to reflect on their experience. Approximately 40 people participate each year and it has proved to be a very effective approach to building experience. A dedicated coordinator works three days per week to deliver this programme so there are financial implications to consider. This post is currently funded through the Roberts agenda and how the scheme is run may change. However, the model of ‘initial training – experience – reflection’ has been adopted by many other training providers.

3. Postgraduate Science Communication Team

PhD students with experience in science communication and public engagement can apply for one of ten places on the post graduate science communication team. (Many applicants completed Research Communication in Action.) Team members are paid to deliver up to ten days of public engagement activities in lieu of undertaking tutorial or demonstration work. Students can contribute to established projects or prepare their own activities. Two staff members who work on public engagement projects coordinate the team. This involves approx three days work in the first month and then approximately two hours per month thereafter each academic year. 

4. Student Societies which offer hands on experience

One active society which offers development opportunities is EUSci, a student-run science communication group. They publish the EUSci Magazine, produce a bi-weekly podcast, run a seminar series, follow local current events in science, and organise workshops and social events. Their activities are open to anyone, university undergraduate or postgraduate students and staff, and members of the community, and they provide hands-on experience at writing, editing and interviewing and pair more experienced people with beginners. This society is also a good example of sharing ideas between institutions: the magazine is based on BlueSci, the University of Cambridge Science Magazine.

5. Festivals: linking to other established events in your area

Linking with established festivals has been an excellent way for staff and students at the University of Edinburgh to gain experience. Involvement has included chairing events and giving talks (which require relatively little time commitment) right up to coordinating a section of a festival which is a significant investment, both in terms of time and financially. The University provides approximately £18,000 funding for ‘Discover Science, a ten day programme of events and drop-in activities for families is run in collaboration with the National Museums of Scotland as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, held in April each year. Discover Science has a dedicated Discover Science coordinator, but the project also relies heavily on voluntary contributions of time from staff and students in planning, creating and facilitating the event. Planning begins in September, with most work taking place between Christmas and April. It attracts over 13,000 visitors per year and over 16,000 when a larger venue was available. Brief visitor interviews each year show extremely positive feedback. Visitors say that they enjoy talking to actual scientists, and like the fact that many of the activities are free and that there are many new activities. Each year, the event involves new University scientists and students, contributing to the accumulation of a group of researchers in and around Edinburgh who are experienced in public engagement.

There are more and more festivals being established across the UK, many of which have links to a wide variety of academic disciplines. There are also UK wide networks of people who can provide ideas and information about how to involve your institution. You can find out more in the NCCPE ‘working with festivals’ guide.

Programmes offered by the Edinburgh Beltane Beacon for Public Engagement

The University of Edinburgh is one of sixteen partner organisations in the Edinburgh Beltane. Two schemes have provided excellent opportunities for staff with experience in public engagement to take their skills to the next level.

1. The Public Engagement Fellowship Scheme

The Public Engagement Fellowship Scheme was initially launched in 2008 as part of a long-term strategy to develop a cohort of early-career researchers with an awareness of public engagement instilled during the formative stages of their careers. The initiative has expanded to meet demand from all levels of staff, and including the Professor of Bilingualism (University of Edinburgh) amongst the alumni.

The Fellowship Scheme comprises a six month part-time secondment (20%). The award (between £3 and £7K) covers the researcher stipend, allowing time to develop the brightest public engagement ideas, improve public engagemeKnt skills and act as public engagement ambassadors across institutions and disciplines.

Fellows are expected to spend 50% of their seconded time in the Edinburgh Beltane office to share best practice and develop a supportive network. Initial feedback shows that involvement in the Fellowship scheme increases awareness of public engagement and acceptance as a valuable activity in home institutions.

There have been five calls for Fellows to date, and there are plans to appoint six to nine more fellows in 2010 and 2011. The number and quality of applications has steadily increased from across the partnership as there is more awareness of the scheme.

There are considerable financial and administrative implications to this scheme but if funding is available, it is an excellent way to embed public engagement throughout an institution and create effective networks.

2. The Edinburgh Beltane Public Engagement Challenge Fund

The Edinburgh Beltane funded 9 public engagement projects, totalling £11,000, in 2010. Seven of the awards explore innovative new public engagement events and two are culture change projects aimed at embedding public engagement as part of an academic institution. All applications were subject to a review process to ensure the projects funded are innovative, demonstrate impact and best practice.

Each project was judged at the end of the year and the one deemed to have had the highest impact won the Public Engagement Challenge Prize and £2000 to continue their work.

Providing funding to give people the chance to try out new ideas and run pilot activities is an effective way to maintain interest in public engagement and to continue to develop skills. It is also a way to collect case studies and best practice tips. 

Success factors

  • The staff and students who participate enjoy taking part and often take an active role in running the activity
  • There is funding available and people to coordinate activities
  • As well as providing opportunities to get involved in public engagement, many of these initiatives benefit the institution in other ways, from making it easier for the press office to keep up to date and raising the profile of the university locally, to developing useful transferable skills and winning funding and fellowships

Lessons learnt

People: All of these initiatives require at least one coordinator. If no-one has a responsibility to keep things moving, no progress is made

Funding: A little money can go a long way but larger projects need resources

Fellowship Scheme:  Word of mouth recommendation from Fellows and their line managers is the most effective form of advertising. It is important to follow up with the fellows to maintain networks.

Next steps

The Edinburgh Beltane is a four year programme and the higher education sector as a whole is facing potentially severe cuts. It will be challenging to continue with these initiatives in their current form. However, there are moves to share resources between institutions and to integrate training, development and other opportunities more closely over the next few years.

Key partners

The Edinburgh Beltane Beacon

EU Sci

The Edinburgh International Science Festival

The Edinburgh International Book Festival

National Museums Scotland

Scotland’s Futures Forum at the Scottish Parliament

Festival of Politics


These are just some examples of things happening in one institution: there are many, many other approaches. The How to do it section highlights some initiatives at other universities and the NCCPE can provide advice and support in setting up activities in your institution.


Lara Isbel
Edinburgh Beltane - Beacon for Public Engagement
The University of Edinburgh, Darwin Building,
The King's Buildings, Edinburgh, EH9 3JR
T: 0131 650 7743