Accessing funding for public engagement
An overview of UK funding sources for public engagement with research
This guide provides an overview of some of the key sources of funding for public engagement, and ends with some top tips for Public Engagement Professionals to help them to access this funding.
Who funds public engagement?
PE can be funded at many different levels, from large scale strategic investments and government funding, to smaller charitable schemes and funding pots Increasingly, UK research funders – such as the higher education funding bodies and the research councils – want to see investment in public engagement built into larger research bids, with resources being allocated to support appropriate public engagement activity throughout the project lifecycle. PE can be funded as part of research grants, regular funding programmes or targeted one-off calls.
Public engagement is also actively encouraged within ‘formula funding’ for HEIs, in particular the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (England only).
PE can also be funded as a standalone activity, through internal funding schemes within HEIs, smaller pots from learned societies, trusts and charities, and through philanthropy. This guide explores each area in turn
UKRI and the Research Councils
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was formed in 2018, replacing Research Councils UK. UKRI brings together the seven disciplinary research councils, Research England, which is responsible for supporting research and knowledge exchange at higher education institutions in England, and the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.
UKRI’s overarching strategy makes clear an expectation that the research they fund should be aligned with societal needs:
“The UK’s world-class research and innovation is the foundation of our health and wellbeing, our economic prosperity and our nation’s global influence. But the world is changing fast, and the UK needs a research and innovation system that is fit for the future: able to respond with agility to social, environmental, technological and economic change on a global scale.”
The strategy identifies four principles for change that are needed to better align research and innovation with society – diversity, resilience, connectivity and engagement. The associated public engagement strategy identifies three more detailed goals:
- Build a sense of shared endeavour by making research and innovation relevant and accessible to all.
- Make sure the benefits of research and innovation are shared widely by supporting collaboration & valuing diverse forms of knowledge.
- Create opportunities for all by inspiring and engaging the next generation.
Sourcing funding from the research councils typically follows four routes:
Responsive research funding
UKRI’s strategy makes clear its expectation that public engagement should be built into the design and conduct of research, as well as factored into the dissemination and sharing of results. PE Professionals typically work closely with researchers who are developing new bids to ensure appropriate PE activities are built in, and resources allocated to support the work.
Dedicated funding calls and investments
Increasingly, UKRI is also expecting public engagement to be embedded in new calls that it launches. A recent example is the Local Policy Innovation Partnerships programme, launched by ESRC and AHRC: a £20M four year programme. The guidance includes a clear expectation that PE should be built into the design of projects.
Research Fellowships, postgraduate and research culture funding
Many Fellowships that support individual researchers can also include funding for public engagement. Public engagement staff should be given the opportunity to advise on the public engagement aspects of these applications (see below for some tips on how to do this).
UKRI public engagement funding schemes
Many of the Research Councils run public engagement funding schemes. Some are regular programmes and some are one-off strategic calls. A searchable list of all open funding calls is available here:
Devolved institutional funding
As well as accessing dedicated public engagement funds, resources to invest in public engagement can be secured through a range of institutional funding mechanisms.
Public engagement is also built into the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is the UK’s system for assessing the excellence of research in UK HEIs, and informs the allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for universities’ research. By contributing impact case studies, and demonstrating how PE is supported as part of your research environment, you can help your institution increase their share of quality-related research (QR) funding.
Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) is another devolved pot of funding from Research England and predates the PRF. It allocates nearly £300 million of Knowledge Exchange funding annually to English HEIs. Its scope is broader than just PE, and it generally comes to senior management who disburse it accordingly, often on staff costs. Some PE teams also get a budget for non-salary spending. Decisions about how to spend HEIF are made at a senior level but it is worth finding out what your university’s HEIF allocation is (if you can) and what it funds.
Universities can be awarded Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs) by the Research Councils, which provide flexible funding over five years. IAAs are intended to support the translation and impact of UK research, allowing projects to grow to the next level and maximise the benefits that research brings to society and the economy. They are managed internally, allowing universities to work directly with researchers and align the funds with their own strategic aims. IAAs might be used to support place-based projects to further develop research impact at a local level, or the commercialisation of research and the creation of new partnerships with business. Often universities use their IAAs to run their own internal funding calls, so check if your institution has one and whether public engagement activities are eligible.
A recent example of dedicated, devolved funding for public engagement is the Participatory Research Fund (PRF), which has been awarded to more than 100 HEPs across the UK by Research England annually since 2021. The funds can be used by HEPs to fund innovative participatory research, along with public engagement activities that are related to participatory and co-produced research.
Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has identified these objectives for its funding to HEIs:
- To deliver excellent research that adds to current knowledge, and translates into social and economic value
- To be connected and collaborative for better outcomes - for the cultural and economic needs of Scotland, for place and community, for schools and skills, and our place in the world
SFC are also increasingly focused on enhancing research culture and collaboration, ensuring universities respond to the economic, social and environmental needs of Scotland, the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion, and the ambition to better recognise the importance of place.
In Wales the HEFCW/CTER’s strategic mission prioritises the role of universities in their places and asks universities to take a more strategic approach towards meeting the needs of their communities and thinking about how they can embed this activity.
Other funding sources
External funding schemes
Many learned societies, membership charities and foundations run funding schemes. Royal societies – who have a royal charter and permission to use the term ‘Royal’ in their official name – often run large funding schemes as well as prestigious awards and prizes. Many smaller organisations offer small grants of up to £1000, and these can be a good way to gain funding to support public engagement activities. For learned society funding schemes, in most cases at least one of the project team needs to be a member of the society.
- Royal Society
- Royal Society of Chemistry
- Royal Society of Biology
- Royal Academy of Engineering
- Many research projects and fellowships are funded through philanthropic gifts (often large donations by high net worth individuals) to charities, such as Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie. These projects may have a public engagement component. Researchers funded through philanthropy are often asked to speak to current and potential future donors, and will benefit from being supported to do this by public engagement staff within their institution.
- Within universities, philanthropy is often managed by the alumni relations team. There may be pots of conditional funding that have been donated by university alumni for specific purposes – you may be lucky and find that your interests and aims match up.
- Small pots of money can sometimes be available through local businesses’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) remits. If your organisation has a volunteering team they may know which local businesses you could try.
- You could also try contacting local businesses to request sponsorship of your public engagement activities. You might frame it as an opportunity for them to celebrate local activity, in return for including their name and logo in publicity materials.
- For a deep dive into the philosophy of philanthropy and ideas on how to make it more effective, democratic, and just, take a look at the Participatory Grantmaking Community. This is a global collective of individuals and organisations interested in sharing knowledge and practice to improve participatory grantmaking and encourage its use within philanthropy.
Public Engagement professionals have a great opportunity to support researchers with funding applications, by strengthening the public engagement aspects and helping to bring in funding for their institutions.
Top tips for supporting researchers to apply for Public Engagement funding
- Aim to have a chat with the researcher about their plans, or read a draft application and give feedback. Ideally both!
- Challenge the researcher to think critically about their plans and justify their decisions. Ask them lots of questions: why have they chosen these activities? What, ultimately, do they want to achieve and how will their plans achieve their desired outcome? Can they justify their costs? Funders will want to see a clear rationale for all of this.
- Who do they need to work with to achieve their aims? Can they define their ‘publics’ as precisely as possible e.g. communities of interest, identity, place; demographics. How will they reach this audience? Can they work with a partner with links to this audience to help them access it? Have they spoken to members of their intended audience and can they demonstrate that there is an appetite and need for their planned intervention?
- Researchers sometimes want to build a website or make a podcast. This can be time and resource intensive and there is no guarantee of an audience for the content. What existing platforms might they use instead that have an established audience and where their ideas have a better chance of reaching the people to whom they are relevant? University Communications and Marketing teams may have helpful guidance.
- Working with schools can be challenging – they are busy places with little flexibility in their schedules. If a researcher doesn’t have an established school partner, encourage them to think about other ways they could reach school age children (and why they want to work with this audience!). These could include school holiday providers, publishers of educational resources, festivals, or charities such as the National Trust which have informal learning programmes.
How to find out about the latest funding opportunities
There are nearly 5,000 funding schemes within the UK. Here are some free ways to stay up to date:
These options are paid for:
Another paid-for database is Research Professional, which brings together research funding in all disciplines from sponsors in the UK and overseas. All funding information in the database is pre-screened for eligibility for UK researchers. Universities often subscribe to Research Professional and