A history of Public Engagement policy and funding

This briefing explores how public engagement funding and policy has evolved since its origins in the early 2000s, and identifies four overlapping phases.   

updated on 09 Oct 2023
5 minutes read

The rise of public engagement: re-setting the relationship between research & innovation and the public

Public engagement emerged as a focus for HE policy in the early 2000s, during a period of intense public scrutiny of science. GM crops in particular were a focus of concerted public protests. The use of animals in research and the emergence of BSE (‘Mad Cow Disease’) added to public concerns about the conduct of science. 

An influential House of Lords Committee report in 2000 made the case for a shift from ‘public understanding of science’ to ‘public engagement’: 

Direct dialogue with the public should move from being an optional add-on to science-based policymaking and to the activities of research organisations and learned institutions, and should become a normal and integral part of the process. (Paragraph 5.48, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Third Report, 2000) 

A number of important developments followed. The ‘Public Attitudes to Science’ survey was initiated to keep track of public attitudes. Sciencewise was launched to facilitate dialogues with the public about emerging areas of research and innovation. The NCCPE was established as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative, to coordinate collective efforts to embed effective support for public engagement. 

If the initial policy focus was on re-building trust, more recently it has evolved to focus much more on the value of participatory, engaged practice: research is now framed by funders like UKRI and Wellcome as a ‘social contract’ requiring close involvement and interaction with society if it is to realise its full potential. 

The rise of the ‘impact agenda’: valuing the contribution of universities to wider society

Running in parallel with concerns about ‘trust in science’, the late 2000s also saw increased policy attention being paid to HE sector’s accountability: what public benefits were accruing from the investment of funding in research?

The so-called ‘impact agenda’ sought to address this, by building the assessment of societal impact into the allocation of research funding. The Research Excellence Framework and the Research Councils’ Pathways to Impact process required researchers to describe the outcomes of their work for wider society. 

Initially ‘impact’ was viewed with great suspicion by many in the sector (as an erosion of academic freedom, an attack on blue skies research and a route to instrumentalising research). But the implementation incentivised engagement and has provided a mechanism to recognise the value of engagement with the public, through impact case studies and through assessment of the support for engagement provided in the wider research environment.  

More recently, the development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) in England has also foregrounded the importance of engagement with the public. One of the seven perspectives in the KEF is Public and Community Engagement, with a score derived from self-assessment of the institution’s approach to P&CE.  

The ‘relational turn’: building a more people-centred knowledge culture

Another focus of public engagement policy has been the need to change university culture because of the ways it marginalises public engagement.

The origins of the ‘culture change’ agenda can be traced back to Royal Society report, ‘Factors Affecting Science Communication’ in 2006. Using public engagement as a lens, the report surveyed researchers and revealed how the culture of science created a host of barriers that discouraged researchers from engaging with the public. Pressures to publish, lack of recognition and an ivory tower mentality were highlighted in the report: 

Science communication was viewed as ‘altruistic’ and not a central part of academic life. The qualitative research also identified that public engagement does not bring in significant funding and is not therefore a high priority activity for universities. (Survey of Factors Affecting Science Communication by Scientists and Engineers, The Royal Society, 2006) 

The key insight – that the culture and practice of research actively inhibited engagement and required attention – was in many ways ahead of its time: it focused attention on the internal workings and cultural practices of research, not just on the design and delivery of externally facing activity. It recommended a number of changes to the practices of funders, universities and research organisations. 

This focus on how research culture inhibits ‘people-centred’ and inclusive practice has now become a major focus for funding policy, with a host of initiatives designed to identify and address the kinds of issues raised in the Royal Society in their 2006 report. REF 2028, for instance, has a newly framed focus on ‘People, Culture and Environment’ which a greatly increased weighting of 25%. For the first time, supporting a healthy research culture is to be an underpinning principle of the REF, influencing all aspects of its design and conduct.

The ‘Civic turn’: working systemically to tackle inequality and promote inclusion

A final policy trend could be termed the ‘civic turn’ – reflecting the increasing focus on the civic role of universities. This has been accelerated by a range of profound social shocks: the fallout from Brexit, the impact of the pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter and the increasing focus on social inequalities across the UK. 

Momentum has arisen from different directions. The Civic University Commission in 2018 captured significant attention, and led to the establishment of the Civic University Network in which the NCCPE was a founding partner. The Commission argued that: 

Universities play a key role nationally through their teaching and research work. But they are also hugely important to the economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing of the places in which they are located. [ ] However, we found few examples of a systematic and strategic approach to the civic role, based on an analysis of the needs of the place. Our proposal, that universities need to do this if they want to go beyond civic engagement to become truly civic universities, forms a central recommendation of the report. (Truly Civic Report, 2018) 

Reinforcing this ‘civic turn’, the UK Government set UKRI a new organisational objective following the publication of their levelling Up White Paper: to ‘deliver economic, social, and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all of our citizens, including by developing research and innovation strengths across the UK in support of levelling up.’

Taking stock

The identification of Public Engagement as a policy priority in the early 2000s focused attention on the highly sensitive, subtle and sometimes troubled relationship between universities and wider society. It helped to bring into focus the need for profound shifts in culture and practice in the university sector.  

The expertise that has been developed – in designing effective participatory practice, in developing more people-centred cultures and in working more collaboratively and systemically with partners – has made a significant contribution to wider shifts in HE policy and practice. 

This has happened in tandem with a rapidly evolving policy landscape. This briefing has spelt out some of the key drivers of that evolution.  The resources below provide more in-depth coverage of the key policy and funding instruments described above.