Public engagement is a term that is widely used in a variety of sectors, from arts and heritage to science policy and local government. We've talked to many different people across the higher education sector and research community to synthesise their views of what public engagement means to them, to inform our definition.
We, at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), think it's important to be inclusive and not to try to narrow the definition down too far. We also believe that the other types of engagement, for instance 'civic' or 'community' engagement, are part of the same family. What they all have in common is describing an aspiration to better connect the work of universities and research institutes with society.
"Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."
Public Engagement isn't something new that universities need to start doing, there is a wealth of engagement activity already happening. A survey of 22,000 academics in 2009 indicated ‘the rich and varied ways that academics engage with wider society'. […] Taken as a whole these results suggest that here is a substantial degree of connectedness between the UK university sector and external organisations. The ivory tower is indeed a myth’.
However, despite enthusiasm for engaging with the public, there is compelling evidence that many staff and students in universities are not well supported or encouraged to work in this way. The Royal Society's report 'Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers' in 2006 found that 64% of scientists said that the need to spend more time on research was stopping them getting more engaged and 20% agreed that scientists who engage are less well regarded by other scientists.
The 2010 report by the Science For All expert group identified how the professional culture of many academic institutions still inhibits engagement. And the 2009 ScoPE report also demonstrated that while many senior academics believe engagement is important, they don't encourage young researchers to do it, fearing its impact on their careers.
It was exactly these kinds of challenge which led to the setting up of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative in 2008. Things are changing. In the years since the Beacon project started, a number of developments have seen public engagement move more into the mainstream of university culture and practice. The NCCPE is delighted to be part of these changes.