Case study
quality practice

Focus on the Positive

updated on 11 Oct 2023
7 minutes

The world is full of problems, but it’s also full of brilliant people, chipping away at those seemingly insurmountable problems with their ideas and expertise.

People at Focus on the Positive event

University College London

Funded by the EPSRC, ‘Focus on the Positive’ is a public event where the audience chooses how to change the world. At each event, a handful of UCL's inspiring researchers explain exactly how they want to tackle the big issues in our world. The audience grill the speakers on stage and face-to-face before voting for what they'd like to support. The winning researcher gets £2000 to spend on the idea they've proposed. A runner-up receives £1000. The event provides a great opportunity to debate some big questions, to encourage researchers to think about the applications of their work, and to give the audience a real stake in university research.

UCL initially ran six events starting April 2012. However, following a period of evaluation in 2013, they re-launched the project with a greater focus on audience development and providing support for participants throughout the process. To date, 29 researchers have participated in the project, helping them develop skills, experience and networks in public engagement. They take part in an extremely popular interactive workshop on pitching and networking, delivered by UCL senior lecturer Karen Bultitude. After training, we help participants develop their project idea, ensuring it is achievable, meaningful and connected to their research. Prior to the event, the participants are given a clear programme of what will happen and what will be expected of them. Once the event is over, our processes allow us to support both prize-winners and people who haven't won prizes.

Over 400 people have been to the events choosing projects they want to fund and participating in discussions and debates. Feedback has been very positive. This is a typical statement from an audience member:

"Worthwhile event, combination of learning, involvement with 'wider community', an outcome beneficial to all."

The public pay £5 to attend (this goes towards the prizes), and the events are professionally hosted and explained clearly. Before voting, audience members are encouraged to discuss the project with researchers face-to-face. The winner is announced on the night. Our intended audiences are highly tech-savvy (particularly the U3A members), so they are encouraged to visit the blog to keep up-to-date with the projects pitched and to follow us on Twitter to find out about future events.

Focus on the Positive won the Collaboration category at the NCCPE's Engage Competition 2014. You can read more on this project my clicking on the headings below.

Project aims

  • To help generate impact from UCL research.
  • To develop UCL staff and students’ skills in public engagement, communication and public speaking (particularly in the faculties of built environment, engineering, and mathematical and physical sciences).
  • To give public audiences an opportunity to influence the funding of university-related activity.
  • To provide an opportunity for UCL staff, students and the public to discuss potential applications of work carried out in the faculties involved.
  • To create self-supporting public engagement networks between researchers across UCL. 

Target audience

Events are targeted at adult audiences interested in science and sustainability, for whom a night out could consist of hearing people talk about their research. Events presented in partnership with University of the Third Age, the Grant Museum and the British Science Association at the Dana Centre have been particularly successful in reaching the desired audience.

Support for researchers

UCL researchers are recruited by members of the UCL Public Engagement Unit. Alongside the opportunity to take part in an interactive workshop on pitching and networking, they are given a clear programme of what will happen and what will be expected of them. The training has contributed to increased confidence amongst researchers giving presentations and lectures in a variety of other contexts outside this project. In the lead up to events, researchers are given further support for developing their project idea, ensuring it is achievable, meaningful and connected to their research. Following the event, support is provided to both prizewinners and people who haven't won prizes. The former often require advice and mentoring to help them deliver their project, the latter tend to require advice on alternative ways to fund their idea. 

Partnerships, publicity and marketing

Target audiences for the events are identified through considering who might be interested in attending. At the early stages the UCL Public Engagement Unit identified a variety of potential audiences, and then identified organisations that would be able to help them reach those audiences. For example, University of the Third Age (U3A) was approached as not only were they an organisation the unit had worked with in the past, but their members include people for whom a night out might involve hearing about research. In addition venues which regularly attract certain audience groups and have a track record in running fantastic events were considered. This led to partnering with the GrantMuseum which is well known throughout London, particularly by people who are interested in science and research, although are not necessarily scientists or researchers themselves.

Having selected and approached potential partners the project team invested time in maintaining relationships, and working collaboratively to ensure the events were of a high standard. The team drew on their track record of organising other events such as Bright Club, and continue to work with partners to adapt the event format as required.  Responsibility for promotion is shared across the partners involved. In addition the event is now regularly featured in Time Out and a number of people have attended in the past through hearing about it on Meetup. 


Evaluation is used to ensure Focus on the Positive meets its aims for the audiences, research participants and partners. A number of light-touch monitoring techniques which avoid creating a barrier to the enjoyment of people who participate in events have been developed. For example, after each event, feedback given informally is systematically logged as are the observations of the project team attending the event. These are stored on a shared drive and reviewed before each event. In addition, a random selection of audience members are asked to complete a short survey that is typed directly into an ipad on the night (a reactionnaire). Feedback is obtained from researchers involved in the event to capture their experiences of being involved and stories of change are collected from those UCL researchers funded to undertake projects. 

A period of internal reflection undertaken in 2013 about a year after the project had commenced was essential to renewing the project and making it work. Analysing the feedback and the monitoring collected and taking the time to reflect and make changes to the project was essential. At this point the team were able to spot where they were going wrong and come up with new ideas that could then be tested. Having the time to do this, and also the input of an experienced evaluation officer (Dr Gemma Moore) was crucial.  


Key to making it work

Having contacts amongst a variety of researchers has been really important to the team.  As is spending time with them to help them think through a project idea that they could pitch for. It's important to have access to audiences and the capacity to run events, alongside making the time for publicity or finding a partner who has the time for publicity. Getting buy-in from peers and partners is crucial to making it work, both in terms of resource but also in terms of working creativity and sharing ideas. The team had a diverse range of skills and experience, which included an evaluation officer, events coordinator and public engagement coordinator and was crucial to making the project a success.

It helped that each event is hosted by a skilled compere who can explain the concept clearly and provide guidence for the audience on what they are voting on. Before voting, audience members are encouraged to discuss the project with researchers face-to-face. The winner is announced on the night, and audiences are encouraged to visit the blog to keep up-to-date with the projects pitched and to follow the project on Twitter to find out about future events. 


Key lessons learnt

It is essential to take the event to an audience who were interested in this kind of work. At the outset the project team found it difficult to encourage interest from the audiences already known through Bright Club. The event improved significantly once they found audiences who wanted to get involved in research in some way. It's important to report back to the audience about what happens with the projects once they are funded. A blog is used to facilitate this with regular posts from the winners.

Researchers who win the award may not always be able to achieve what they set out to do, so it's been crucial to manage expectations and make sure audiences and researchers are aware that things can change. People who are pitching are encouraged to do something realistic, and the audience is encouraged to choose something that is realistic. This means the questions that audiences ask are often quite challenging and they will only vote for projects that they feel are doable. Over time this has become a major part of how the compere frames the events.