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The role of public engagement in the REF

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The NCCPE today published a comprehensive review of how public engagement featured in REF 2014. The report is timely given the current consultation on REF 2021, which invites responses about how guidance about public engagement might be improved.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Public engagement is pervasive: 3108 of the 6640 case studies (47%) made some reference to engaging with the public. 

  • Public engagement can happen ‘alone’ but more often is integrated into a blend of external engagement, with policy or the professions, and very occasionally with business.

  • Public engagement appears to be more prevalent in the Arts and Humanities: The extent of public engagement reported across the four main panels differed strikingly.  There was surprisingly little public engagement reported in areas like medicine and public health.

  • Different ‘flavours’ of public engagement feature in different discipline areas: for instance, ‘outreach’ is prevalent in physics. 

  • Public engagement is nearly always focussed on changes to understanding and awareness.  Much more rarely is it foregrounded as a route to realising legal, technological or commercial impacts or more instrumental outcomes: many researchers default to a paradigm of public engagement as ‘dissemination’, and in the process limit its potential to contribute at all stages of the research cycle. The public are most often framed as an ‘audience’ for research findings, rather than as experts in their own right or as active participants in the process.

  • Evidence provided of impact on public understanding and awareness is often weak: usually researchers limit their evidence to a list of the outlets they have used and the numbers of people engaged.

  • Public engagement is often ‘mediated’ through the involvement of organisations like schools, broadcasters, charities or museums
  • There was no significant difference in the scores awarded to case studies featuring mentions of public engagement compared with those that don’t: anecdotally, there was nervousness in the sector that public engagement would be valued less highly than other types of engagement. This finding challenges that assumption.

The report examines the characteristics of excellent case studies which featured public engagement, and provides a host of useful frameworks and tools to inform the development of future public engagement activities and case studies.  Drawing on excellent practice, it provides critical insights into how public engagement can lead to impact, and how that impact might be evidenced.  

A summary of the key findings (including highlights from the tools on offer) can be accessed at the NCCPE website.

We are keen to encourage you to access the full report, which contains extended analysis of the submitted case studies, examples of how impacts arising from public engagement are described, and recommendations about how to structure convincing narrative accounts. Copies of the full report can be obtained for free by contacting the NCCPE: nccpe.enquiries@uwe.ac.uk

The report’s findings underpin the NCCPE’s draft response to the REF 2021 consultation. 

The NCCPE response is supportive of the overall thrust of the consultation, which makes the case for maintaining continuity with REF 2014.  Our response provides suggestions for how various elements of the REF might be enhanced, including:

  • The guidance about public engagement (building on our review of the role of public engagement in REF 2014 and the tools developed to aid understanding and assessment).
  • The guidance about enhancing collaboration between HEIs and external organisations.
  • The suggestion that the definition of what constitutes ‘underpinning research’ in an impact case study be broadened beyond conventional research outputs.

Please do circulate our draft response to colleagues and feedback your reactions by 10th March, to inform our final response.  You can contact us at nccpe.enquiries@uwe.ac.uk.