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Systems for Staff: Co-ordinating and supporting public engagement at Beacon NE

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Who: Newcastle University, Durham University and the Centre for Life.

What:  Beacon North East (Beacon NE), one of 6 collaborative centres established around the UK to encourage public engagement.  Key components of staff development in Beacon NE are 1) the part-funding of existing members of staff to embed public engagement support within host institutions, 2) a secondment scheme to facilitate researchers' involvement with defined engagement projects, and 3) the incorporation of accreditation for public engagement into an existing professional qualification (Certificate in Advanced Studies in Academic Practice, CASAP).

Why: Beacon NE believes that for public engagement to become an integral part of research, a greater number of academics need to see public engagement as one possible approach to improving the quality, relevance and impact of their work. Beacon NE is helping academic staff to develop understanding of public engagement, and the skills required to undertake it.

Where: North East England

 When: Beacon NE is a pilot project running from January 2008 to December 2011

Project descriptionExplaining Public Engagement at Beacon NE

Beacon NE is one of six Beacons for Public Engagement, established to encourage public engagement in the Higher Education sector and is a partnership between Newcastle University, Durham University and the Centre for Life, dedicated to:

  • improving the quality of research by bringing together academic experts with ‘experts by experience’ from outside the academic world
  • working with local communities on research which solves real problems and makes a difference to people in the North East and beyond
  • supporting and promoting public engagement at Durham and Newcastle universities

Like the other Beacons, Beacon NE is funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils, Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust - the Beacons are connected and coordinated by The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).

Beacon NE has a core team of staff offering support and expertise in engagement to colleagues across the partnership.  At both Newcastle University and Durham University, Beacon NE has appointed 'Fellows' - academics part of whose time is 'bought out' to allow the development of innovative public engagement activities.

Networking and Mentoring:  Academic Engagement Leads, Theme Leaders, and local coordinators

Academic Engagement Leads and Theme Leaders at Newcastle and Durham Universities, are part-funded by the project.  Academic Engagement leads act as a first port-of-call for researchers wishing to integrate engagement into their work, while Theme Leaders are experienced academics who are well connected within the higher education sector, and who take responsibility for one of Beacon NE's three priority themes:

  • Energy and environment
  • Social justice and inclusion
  • Wellbeing/Ageing and Vitality

Theme Leaders also act as ambassadors for the Beacon NE project, helping to drive the creation of engagement initiatives, as well as forging links within their institutions and the wider community and working on the long-term sustainability of the project.

In addition to these Beacon NE-funded roles, the project is also hoping to encourage Schools and Departments at both Universities to identify a focal person or coordinator for public engagement. In the short term, this would provide someone who can liaise with Beacon NE to communicate opportunities and share learning. In the longer term, it could provide a network of staff that can connect public engagement activity and enthusiasts. A number of Schools in each University have already identified such coordinators and some (e.g. Architecture, Planning and Landscape; and Neuroscience at Newcastle University) have a dedicated post to support public engagement.

Seconding Staff

The Beacon NE Fellowship Scheme operational in both Universities offers awards which pay for approximately three months of Fellows’ time (full-time or spread over a longer period) to undertake an engagement project. To date there have been two rounds of the scheme with 13 Fellows chosen from 32 applications. Successful Fellows are offered support and advice from Theme Leaders and Academic Engagement Leads, as well as members of the central team. Though the pilot phase of the scheme has been initiated and administered by Beacon NE, it is owned by the Universities, who also part-fund it.

Accreditation: the Certificate in Advanced Studies in Academic Practice

Beacon NE has been working with the Staff Development Unit at Newcastle University, on integrating public engagement into the CASAP programme. CASAP offers experienced academics the opportunity of accreditation of personal and professional development in their academic practice. The programme consists of two modules, with experienced staff needing only the second, Developing Academic Practice. It is taken by 15–20 academics per year, typically at an early stage in their career, and is designed to be tailored to an individual’s needs so they can focus attention on a skill or competence they wish to develop. A 'project' is selected which focuses on a specific development activity of the academic’s choosing and fulfils a business need for the University, or that relates specifically to the individual’s job. Typical projects have included designing a new programme, setting up a venture commercialising intellectual property and new research initiatives.

Beacon NE has helped to incorporate public engagement into CASAP, and in 2010 participants were introduced to the possibility of choosing a public engagement project through a briefing paper produced by Beacon NE.

Professional Development

Beacon NE is holding a series of joint meetings with the Staff Development Units of Durham and Newcastle Universities and the Centre for Life to identify opportunities for embedding public engagement within existing professional development for all staff, particularly early stage researchers. Three levels of training are envisaged: induction followed by initial and continuing professional development, with appropriate materials and activities provided at each stage.  It is important to Beacon NE that each training or personal development opportunity be followed up by a chance to put learning in to action – e.g. science communicaton workshops will be followed up by the opportunity to take part in the regional Science Festival, Newcastle Science Fest.


Networking and Mentoring

The roles funded or otherwise supported by Beacon NE are intended to develop a community of practice, providing informal opportunities for those involved in public engagement to discuss issues and share ideas. By buying out time to fulfill these roles from existing members of staff, Beacon NE is providing a degree of recognition for public engagement expertise, an opportunity to develop this expertise further and a sustainable model of support.

Seconding Staff

The Fellowship Scheme offers a form of recognition and has helped raise the profile of those doing public engagement within each institution.  The aim of the Fellowship programme is to improve dialogue on issues of mutual relevance, assist in aligning systems and processes and to identify and showcase best practice in public engagement at Durham and Newcastle Universities.

Accreditation and Professional Development

By aligning itself with the training provided in the CASAP modules, Beacon NE is seeking to encourage future academics to consider undertaking a public engagement project to fulfill the needs of the module thereby seeding a philosophy of engagement in early-career academic staff. Furthermore, by embedding public engagement into existing professional development activities, it is the hope of Beacon NE that a framework of opportunities will develop that covers the professional development needs of academics with varying levels of public engagement experience.

“The Beacon is effectively a support group for the emergent discipline of Engagement Studies… A great forum to swap methodology and philosophy and to be supported operationally.”

Results and outcomes

What worked well

Maximising Impact PresentationNetworks: Beacon NE-supported staff have been successful in establishing support structures for public engagement by academics. One academic from Newcastle University commented: ‘The Beacon is effectively a support group for the emergent discipline of Engagement Studies… A great forum to swap methodology and philosophy and to be supported operationally.’ These staff have also proved pivotal in determining the direction of the project.  Sarah Aldridge, previous Senior Programmes Manager for Beacon NE, reflected: ‘The Theme Leaders and Academic Engagement Leads have been a vital source of input for the central team when we’re thinking about the impact of what we do in relation to other academic staff. The nature of these roles and the way in which they engage with the project is continually evolving, particularly in light of shifting institutional drivers and priorities, so it remains an important area in which we can capture learning.’

Secondment: The Fellowship scheme has helped raise the profile of those doing public engagement within the institutions, one Fellow commented: ‘I’ve had positive noises made from my Head of Department and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor. My department are proud that this is something we’ve done.’ He went on to comment that ‘it is something that is helping to support a culture change. In my school I feel that it is valued by my peers and bosses.’ Other Fellows mentioned how the experience of being a Fellow had supported their broader work by, for example, informing other proposals or supporting applications to conferences. Both Universities have expressed a desire to continue the scheme post-Beacon, with Engagement Sabbaticals being a core component of Newcastle University’s new Engagement Strategy.

Accreditation: Initial results from involvement with CASAP seem promising. According to Richard Young, Professional Development Manager, there was immediate interest from participants, and at least one intends to base their project around public engagement: ‘One of them was really interested in what you sent and is planning to create a distance learning Continuing Professional Development module for pipeline engineers, that following piloting could eventually be available worldwide.’ Discussions have also been initiated with staff at Durham University, who are exploring the possibility of embedding engagement within the taught element of their equivalent programme, the Postgraduate Certificate of Academic Practice (PG CAP).

“I’ve had positive noises made from my Head of Department and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor. My department are proud that this is something we’ve done.”

Professional Development: Considerable progress has already been seen on induction, where Durham University recently incorporated engagement into those for postgraduates and staff. Beacon NE has been represented at postgraduate fairs and all staff induction events in October 2009, and information on Beacon NE is also included on the staff induction website.

  • A number of additional staff development events and workshops have already been delivered, for example: Maximising Impact through Public Engagement, Experiences of Engagement Seminar Series, Participatory Action Research, Community Organising and Young People as Co-Researchers.
  • Discussions are also underway with Centre for Life to provide further opportunities for staff, including a Science Communication master-class aimed at early stage researchers.

What didn't work well

  • A continuing challenge for Beacon NE is ensuring that information on public engagement disseminated as part of induction activities is regularly updated to reflect shifting national and institutional drivers. This means maintaining materials produced and, more importantly, ensuring key staff are fully informed.
  • Further work is necessary to align the complex systems encompassed by Human Resources, in particular mechanisms for recruitment, induction and promotion.

Resources required

Total Cost: £122,640

Partner contribution cost: £95,470

BNE cost: £27,170 

University staff: 13

Top Tips

  1. When initiating programmes with central University teams such as HR and Staff Development, do your research – know what they do and build on what they’re good at.  Be prepared to listen more than talk in the beginning and identify common goals – don’t expect everyone to sing from your hymn sheet!
  2. Ensure a fair and open application process for Fellowship schemes – don’t assume the ‘usual’ enthusiasts or those with the most experience will produce the work with the most impact.
  3. Make sure you have capacity to support the administrative needs of any Fellowship scheme, which can be demanding.
  4. Encourage critical debate as part of an ongoing monitoring process for Fellows – let them examine each others work and ensure that a regular reporting mechanism is built in to any funding offered.
  5. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture – individual instances of successful engagement can be built on and most importantly, learned from.
  6. Don’t ignore the negatives – institutions should be better prepared to recognise instances of unsuccessful public engagement as another opportunity for further engagement!  Share and learn from what doesn’t work, as well as what does.


Name:  Kate Hudson

Name of organisation: Beacon NE


Telephone: 0191 222 8312