The story so far
The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) was established in 2008, as part of the Beacons for Public Engagement programme. This programme had a simple but very challenging aim, to galvanise culture change in the six pilot projects and to influence the wider sector:
"...to create a culture within UK HE where public engagement is formalised and embedded as a valued and recognised activity for staff at all levels, and for students."
The Beacons laid the foundations, but since then lots has happened to strengthen and extend support for public engagement across the sector. There is still a lot of work to do.
In this section we have chosen to highlight three different ’landmarks’, each of which have generated useful publications and tools and advanced our collective knowledge about how best to support public engagement. They reflect the ‘state of the art’ in supporting public engagement.
Landmark 1: The Beacons for Public Engagement and the EDGE tool
Funded between 2008 and 2012 the Beacons were 6 partnership projects seeking to build a supportive culture for public engagement with research. The first investment of its kind, it distilled important learning about where efforts can most productively be targeted. The learning established nine focal points, represented in the table below, which need to be addressed if a supportive culture is to be established.
Have you created a shared understanding of the purpose, value and meaning of engagement and embedded this in your strategy and mission?
Do you support champions across the organisation who embrace engagement?
Do you communicate consistent, clear messages to validate, support and celebrate it, and ensure open and two-way communication with internal and external stakeholders?
How do you co-ordinate the delivery of support to maximise efficiency, target support, improve quality, foster innovation, join up thinking and monitor effectiveness?
What opportunities do you provide for learning and reflection and what support do you provide for professional development?
How do you recognise and reward staff involvement within recruitment, promotion, workload plans and performance reviews, and how do you celebrate success?
Do you ensure that all staff – in academic and support roles – have opportunities to get involved in informal and formal ways?
Do you proactively involve stakeholders / users / publics in shaping the mission and in the delivery of the strategy, and maximise opportunities for their involvement?
How are students involved and what opportunities do they have to contribute their expertise and energy?
This learning was distilled in the EDGE Tool, a self-assessment matrix which allows institutions to quickly assess their current support for public engagement with research.
Landmark 2: The Catalysts for Public Engagement with Research
Funded between 2012 and 2015, the 8 Catalyst projects built on learning from the Beacon projects. Working over a shorter timescale (3 years) they informed the development of an impact framework which articulated the types of impact which can meaningfully be aimed for and realised in investments of this kind.
The NCCPE conducted a review of the key lessons learned from the project which identified a set of enablers and barriers. Key enablers included:
Work with the grain of your institution: engagement needs to resonate with the values and culture
Invest in a gifted team who excel at collaboration
Ensure there is excellent senior leadership who lead by example
Communicate effectively internally and externally
Have a plan and change it: focus is vital – but embrace opportunity and be flexible
Take quick wins when you find them
Choose your battles: it’s easy to lose time and energy struggling with intractable obstacles
The full report distils these key lessons, and provides concrete examples of ‘what works’ in securing culture change.
Landmark 3: Taking stock of progress and identifying challenges
The period 2015-16 saw various investments in evidence gathering and synthesis to take stock of the progress being made to embed better support for public engagement with research. A key intervention was a major survey of researchers, revisiting the influential 2006 research, Factors Affecting Science Communication, which led to the founding of the NCCPE. This intervention, the Factors Affecting Public Engagement by Researchers survey (2015), provided a rich picture of the current state of support for public engagement with research across the higher education sector.
The funders who commissioned the report concluded:
"There has been a positive shift in researchers’ understanding and attitudes to public engagement over the last 10 years. This shift represents an important milestone on a longer journey of culture change for the research and higher education sectors, which remains a ‘work in progress’. The survey finds that researchers are now considerably more personally motivated in this area yet challenges remain. The findings also suggest that more needs to be done to support, reward and recognise researchers so as to embed public engagement as an integral part of a research career."
In 2015, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Wellcome commissioned The State of Play report to synthesise a variety of evidence sources (including the Factors survey) and explore what the sum of evidence tells us about the current key highlights, barriers and challenges for public engagement in the research and higher education sector.
While recognising the considerable progress that has been made, it identified a number of challenges and areas for further work, which include:
Accrediting public engagement: investigating and piloting possible models and exploring the possible benefits that participation and accreditation may bring to researchers, departments, faculties and institutions
Developing a typology of public engagement within a broader engagement context (such as industry, policy, knowledge exchange etc.)
Training and guidance for peer reviewers in assessing the quality of public engagement
Developing a professional framework for enablers and administrators supporting public engagement including the provision of leadership courses
Mapping researchers’ workload to understand further their time pressures and priorities
Continuing to fund culture change within institutions
Creating incentives that support evaluation experts becoming embedded into higher education institutions to complement the existing enabler roles
Strengthening the role of middle managers in developing a culture for public engagement within their departments, for instance through the NCCPE’s Engage Watermark