Catalysing change: using research findings to embed engaged research

Ann Grand and Rick Holliman

Ann Grand and Richard Holliman, The Open University, UK

The NCCPE’s recent web poll suggested that respondents’ attitudes to engagement are shifting. Certainly, more and more higher education institutions are embracing engagement and acknowledging its public value for their researchers and institutions. However, rather than trying to unpick the value of engagement, the questions we asked (along with colleagues Gareth Davies and Anne Adams) in a recent piece of research were ones that are asked less often.

Catalysing evidence-based change

As part of our RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst, ‘An open research university’, we carried out two related online surveys in 2013 of Open University (OU) researchers and research leaders from across the university. The overarching aim of our OU-wide action research project was to embed engagement in the routine practices of researchers at all levels. To do this effectively, we needed to know what researchers thought ‘engagement’ was in the first place.

We guessed there would be as many definitions of engagement as there were respondents, so it was important that we allowed people to tell us what engagement meant to them in their own words. We asked researchers four open questions, inviting them to tell us what engagement meant to them in their own words: first, to give us their definition of ‘public engagement with research’; second, to describe an engagement activity they had participated in and how they judged its success; third, the communities they had, would like to (or would not like) to engage with; and fourth, to offer three reasons for engaging with non-academic communities or people.

For the full results and discussion, we invite you to download our paper (Grand, et al, 2015) and, if you’re feeling really keen to request the associated data set. In brief, we found in both their definitions and descriptions of activities, OU researchers appear conservative both in their concepts of public engagement with research and about the communities with which they interact.

Telling it like it is

The central code of our analysis focussed on engagement as one-way: disseminating, presenting and conveying the outputs of research. Although partnership, dialogue and collaboration were mentioned in both researchers’ definitions of engagement and their descriptions of activities, these terms were applied to a range of very different practices, not all of which were distinctively different from one-way communication.

Of course, we’re not suggesting that one-way communication is somehow inferior to more interactive approaches. For certain topics and in some circumstances, such communication is absolutely appropriate, satisfying a desire for information and supporting understanding. Rather, we were keen to identify patterns in how researchers understood engagement with a view to extending those practices to embrace the principles of engaged research.

Designing research-informed interventions

We used the findings from this research, in combination with data from a second strand of research using semi-structured interviews with researchers, to shape and inform a series of interventions to support our aim to embed engagement in researchers’ practices. These included creating a definition of ‘engaged research’, developed in discussion with researchers across the OU and recently approved by the OU’s Senate.

Engaged research encompasses the different ways that researchers meaningfully interact with various stakeholders (1) over any or all stages of a research process, from issue formulation, the production or co-creation of new knowledge, to knowledge evaluation and dissemination.

1. Stakeholders may include user communities, and members of the public or groups who come into existence or develop an identity in relationship to the research process.

We also introduced mechanisms for short and long-term reward and recognition to identify and reward excellence in engaged research, for example our Engaging Research Awards Scheme, to celebrate engaged research across the university.

Catalysing change blog image

The 2015 Winners and Highly Commended Entries: l-r Richard Holliman, Paul Stenner, Katy Jordan, Graham Pike, Rosa Hoekstra, Francesca Benatti (on behalf of Elton Barker), Alan Bassindale, Verina Waights, Martin Weller, Cindy Kerawalla, Saskia van Manen and Fiona McKerlie

More recently, the OU’s Senate approved a long-term change in recognising excellence in engaged research, introducing Knowledge Exchange profiles within revised and extended promotion criteria to offer new routes to career progression.

Thinking ahead

Having run two surveys in 2013 we are now in the process of running them again in 2015, but with a revised set of questions. In this second survey we’re asking researchers to: 1) identify activities they consider to be successful, and why; 2) explore the support mechanisms they currently use, and might need in the future: and 3) finally, to consider the types of evidence that they could demonstrate in a promotion case based on engaged research.

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