The policy and funding landscape for public engagement
The rise of public engagement: why has it become a policy priority, and how is it incentivised in university funding?
We know that when wider society is involved, research and innovation become more relevant and useful for everyone. For these reasons, a key priority for everyone working in research and innovation must be to forge deeper connections with wider society
The emergence of Public Engagement
Public engagement policy seeks to improve the relationship between universities and wider society. It emerged in the early 2000s, in response to concerns about declining trust in science and innovation. Since then, public engagement policy has matured and evolved, influenced by shifting perceptions and expectations of universities’ contribution to society.
The policy developments have focused on several ‘fault lines’:
A concern that research and innovation are getting out of step with society and that proactive engagement is necessary to ensure they reflect social and ethical sensitivities.
A concern that research and teaching are too far removed from ‘real life’ and need to better meet the expectations and needs of wider society.
A concern that universities operate as ‘ivory towers’ and should do more to contribute to the vitality of their places and to address the consequences of social inequality.
The evolution of public engagement: five overlapping shifts
Since public engagement first emerged as a policy focus in the early 2000s, the external context for universities has shifted dramatically. COVID-19, the fall-out from Brexit, and increased focus on place-based inequality and on inclusion have moved public engagement up the agenda.
From an initial motivation to tackle declining trust in research, the agenda has broadened: the imperative to work in inclusive and socially engaged ways is now mainstreamed in policy and funding. The timeline provides an overview of some of the key developments.
2000 to present
2010 to present
2018 to present
2020 to present
Public engagement now: an embedded rather than ‘bolted on’ approach
In 2008, when the NCCPE was established, we were charged with bringing about a culture change in how universities supported high quality public engagment with research. For a number of years the NCCPE’s focus on culture change was relatively unusual. It helped to highlight some of the challenges in broader research culture, and now this focus on making research culture more open and engaged is a priority for all funders, giving much greater impetus to our culture change efforts.
Increasingly, funders are expecting meaningful public engagement to be built into the design of research and knowledge exchange – rather than treating it as a separate activity to be ‘bolted on’, often at the end of a project. Wellcome’s new focus on ‘Engaged Research’ foregrounds this expectation, as they move away from funding discrete public engagement interventions. UKRI’s new strategy outlines a similar expectation.
Public and Community Engagement is one of the 7 perspectives in the Knowledge Exhchange Framework in England. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2028 puts even greater emphasis on the development of open research cultures, and places a much more explicit focus on the importance of rigorous, expert engagement in the framing of the impact domain.
Public Engagement is much closer to being a mainstream activity in higher education – though there is still much to play for. We have pulled together a range of resources at the of this page to enable you to delve deeper into the current funding and policy landscape.
The future: creating more inclusive, open universities
As the demands for a more inclusive sector grow, Public Engagement is playing an increasingly significant role in both policy and practice.
So what might the future hold? Of course, much is uncertain, and the financial pressures bearing down on universities makes the progress to embed public engagement vulnerable. It will demand strong and committed leadership if it is to be provided the support it needs to flourish.
As we look ahead, it is important to avoid taking a fixed or dogmatic position about what public engagement is: rather, to focus on the outcomes it helps universities to realise, and to be flexible and responsive to the shifting political and social context in which HEIs operate.
At its core, public engagement reminds us how important it is to embed openness and inclusivity in our work. This requires a joined up, collaborative approach where Public Engagement professionals are working alongside senior managers, engaged researchers, knowledge exchange and impact professionals, community and civic engagement teams and external partners with one simple goal: to enable their institutions to contribute in increasingly purposeful and responsive ways to the needs of wider society.
Public engagement focuses attention on the imperative for universities to work in more open and inclusive ways to build and share knowledge.
This collaborative and curious mindset vitalises universities, motivates staff, stimulates innovation and makes a major contribution to enhancing the culture of research.