Research culture and public engagement
This briefing explores the increasing focus on efforts to improve research culture, and the opportunities this creates for public engagement.
What is research culture?
‘Culture is an organic process that needs to evolve and adapt’.
The 2020s have seen research culture become a major talking point in higher education, in particular the negative features of research culture, and why this culture needs to change. Wellcome’s surveys and reviews of research culture and the work of the Royal Society are two notable examples, as are the more ‘grassroots’ efforts of researcher networks. These critiques have identified a host of problems, including ultracompetitive practices, a lack of diversity, and a pressure to publish. These norms and behaviours not only affect the well-being of researchers and the quality of collaboration internally, but also discourage external engagement and collaboration. Simply put, research culture often discourages ‘people-centred’ practice (collaborative, open and inclusive ways of acting and behaving).
The research sector is not unique in having its culture ‘called out’: health, government, the police service, business and charities have all had their cultures challenged, in an attempt to root out practices and behaviours which damage their internal ways of working and their standing with wider society.
So what does this mean for public engagement?
Why is research culture important for public engagement?
Public engagement sits at the centre of concerns about culture, and has done so for a number of years. The 2006 Royal Society Report ‘Factors Affecting Science Communication by Scientists and Engineers’ was an early example of ‘calling out’ the influence of culture on practice:
"...public engagement will not happen to any appreciable extent unless scientists receive full recognition of their efforts and a supportive infrastructure is created in which engagement can take place" (p.5)
The report led to the establishment of the NCCPE as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative with an explicit ‘culture change’ remit:
"To create a culture within UK higher education where public engagement is formalised and embedded as a valued and recognised activity for staff at all levels, and for students."
Significant progress has been made in identifying and addressing the cultural factors that discourage public engagement. The work could be characterised as a ‘nudge on the tiller’ of research – addressing just one of many manifestations of how research culture limits open and inclusive practices.
Since the establishment of the NCCPE there have been a series of other ‘nudges’, to try to better balance how research is organised and how it delivers on its social purpose. We have seen, for instance, the introduction of Concordats focused on integrity and openness. The impact agenda was a huge shift in the allocation of research funding, to encourage more engagement and focus on the wider value of research.
These calls for change has now reached something of a tipping point. This creates important opportunities for the learning about cultural change gathered in the public engagement space to be taken up elsewhere. It also provides an opportunity to staff working in the PE space to build stronger alliances with people committed to improving other areas of research culture, for instance the openness and integrity of research.
Discussion of problems with research culture can lead to navel gazing and a certain amount of disillusionment. It is important to remember that the need to challenge and refresh culture is a necessary process, to keep step with how the external environment is changing.
The need for a more supportive culture for public engagement is now just one aspect of a much broader focus on how to create a more responsive and engaged research system. The UK Research and Innovations (UKRI)'s 5-year strategy provides a helpful distillation of the key shifts need to create a more ‘agile and connected system’ (p.8). It identifies the four fundamental shifts outlined below.
What is clear is that policy has moved on from what could be characterised as treating some of the symptoms of a dysfunctional culture (improving support for public engagement) to a concerted attempt to realise whole system change. This calls for common purpose – with public engagement finding common cause with this wider movement for change.
UKRI's Principles for Change
So how can this new policy direction contribute to and benefit the work to improve support for public engagement?
A first step is to identify the contribution of public engagement to this wider movement for change. Here we summarise how public engagement contributes to the four principles in UKRI’s strategic plan.
We will champion a creative and dynamic research and innovation system.
- Through participatory and collaborative research practices, actively involving citizens in the research system
- Addressing exclusion through expert approaches to inclusive research
We will build connectivity and break down silos across the system, nationally and internationally.
- Sharing the expertise developed in the public engagement professional community (inside and outside HE, in the UK and beyond) to build wider engagement capability across the sector
- Through expertise in partnership development, involving more and more civil society organisations and networks in productive collaborations with researchers
We will increase the agility and responsiveness of the system.
- Through dialogue, ensuring research is aligned with society’s values and helping maintain public trust in the practices and governance of research
- Encouraging methodological innovation, to ensure research practice evolves to better meet the knowledge needs of society
We will help to embed research and innovation in our society and economy.
- Breaking down barriers between research and society by finding meaningful and productive ways to involve the public in the process and outcomes of research
Expertise in culture change
These principles provide a useful platform to make the case for public engagement’s vital contribution to increasing the openness and responsiveness of the research system. They help us to build common purpose with a host of other initiatives and specialists who are working to enhance research culture, and in the process to accelerate progress to embed public engagement.
The other key opportunity is to contribute the lessons learned in the public engagement community about how to actually plan and deliver culture change. We share some key insights and lessons in our ‘Understanding culture change’ briefing.