One of the key roles of an engagement professional is to support researchers to develop their own public engagement skills, competencies and plans. Below you can find out the key things you might do to offer this type of support within your own context.
Engaging researchers is just like any other engagement project – you need to know why you are doing it, and take time to understand the people you are seeking to engage with. Public engagement is both understood and valued differently valued by individuals, and therefore it helps to spend time listening to how people are making sense of their research, and if and how engagement could play a role.
Therefore, understanding the researchers you are going to support is an important first step. Do not underestimate the value of spending time talking to people about their motivations, their research, and if and how they make sense of engagement. Being curious about people’s research can open up new ideas for how they could engage the public with their work.
There are a range of things that might motivate researchers to engage with the public, including:
- To have impact from their work
- To inspire and inform others about the work that they are doing
- To encourage young people to consider becoming a researcher or studying their subject
- To make the world a better place
- To be accountable for the public funding invested in their work
The term ‘public engagement’ is understood differently by different people in different discipline areas. For instance; in health research, public engagement is usually interpreted to mean the dissemination of research outputs, as opposed to ‘public involvement’ which seeks to involve the public in the research process. The NCCPE’s definition emphasises the importance of mutuality, and of listening as well as sharing. As a public engagement professional it is important to explore what public engagement means in your institutional context, and to work with colleagues to develop a definition that captures your collective ambition. A shared reference frame helps inform conversations about it and helps you develop a focused strategy. Our ‘Developing a public engagement strategy’ guide provides examples of how different universities have chosen to frame their definitions. As part of their SEE-PER programme, the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology developed a set of Principles for Public Engagement that really helped.
Understanding and valuing quality engagement
A key role for a public engagement professional is to support high quality engagement. Having some guidelines to inform your approach to training and support can help enhance quality, and also enable you to offer explicit criteria when offering advice to others. Using these criteria consistently over time can make a real difference. Celebrating quality through prizes, funding awards or sharing content on the website and newsletter can lead to change across the organisation. It can also be more effective than immediately tackling examples of poor quality engagement!
For inspiration, you might want to look at how the University of Oxford celebrates excellent engagement.
It is critical to support engagement skills development, through a range of mechanisms. CPD is often thought of as training courses – but this is only one mechanism that can provide the types of support your researchers need. You can find out more about how to develop your approach on our supporting training page.
Bringing people together, to reflect on their engagement work and to learn from others, is a great way of building capacity for engagement. This might include developing informal networks; running an annual get-together to showcase practice, and to develop and enhance collective learning; or running monthly lunch time sessions where people can share their work. These sessions are part of the CPD offer you might want to develop. You can explore other ideas by using our ‘learning’ mini-EDGE tool and resources.
The key to high quality engagement is the strategic and effective use of evaluation. There are two challenges here for a public engagement professional. One is to build a culture with your researchers where high quality evaluation is practised routinely to improve the quality of their work. The other important thing to do is to invest in evaluation to improve your own practice and to reflect on the success of the support programme you are offering. We offer tips on how to evaluate your support programme.
Finally, here is a checklist you might use to assess how you are currently supporting researchers, and what might be missing:
- Consultancy and advice is available to colleagues when developing PE.
- Public Engagement expertise is available for brokerage of collaborations and partnerships between researchers and publics.
- Public Engagement expertise is available to advise on grant applications.
- PE is supported with funding from the institution.
- Opportunities to develop PE skills through training are offered.
- Opportunities to develop PE skills through activities are offered.
- Peer-to-peer networks exist for staff to support each other’s PE practice.
- Mentoring opportunities for PE are available to staff.
- Staff and students have access to tools, guides and resources to support PE activity.
- PE is recognised in formal reward and recognition processes.
- PE is written into promotion and professional development reviews.
- PE is recognised in awards and prizes.
This page is the tip of the iceberg; there are lots of approaches you might take to support your researchers, which we explore in the rest of this section. Our mini-EDGE tools also provide structured way of looking across all aspects of your support programme.
If you want to develop your approach in any of these areas, get in touch and we can share resources we have developed to support you.