The Human Brain

Zeiss microscopy

How do you see the future for engaged universities? Dr Kerry Leslie, Head of Public Engagement with Research for Research Councils UK, imagines the engaged university being as awe-inspiring and engaging as the human brain.

Being an optimistic person I am very positive about the future of the engaged university and I believe that there is lots to celebrate and be positive about. The world has moved on dramatically since the days of the so-called ‘ivory towers’. Previously engagement was limited to popularisation of academic research, industrial collaboration and student recruitment. This evolved and now, from art and science festivals to school workshops and research projects involving local communities, our universities and scientific and cultural institutions have a rich history of engaging the public with research, across all disciplines.

Building on this, initiatives such as the Beacons for Public Engagement, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement and the more recent Research Councils UK Public Engagement with Research Catalysts have helped to change the culture within HEIs to help embed public engagement with research within university policies, procedures and practices. Successes include universities committing to public engagement within their strategies, creating champions, changes to promotions criteria, job descriptions and appraisals to recognise public engagement, the creation of prizes and provision of training and administrative support to enable researchers to engage.To build on these achievements and other examples of good practice in the research and HE sectors, RCUK then worked with partners to develop the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat acts as a tool to inspire research organisations, researcher managers and researchers from across the HE sector to better foster public engagement.

So what does the future hold? What will the engaged university look like? I see the engaged university as awe-inspiring and engaging as the human brain. Our brains are unique and perform an incredible number of tasks, compare this to the university which, in the future, will receive information from the world around, accepting the diversity of that information and using the information to problem solve, imagine, reason, dream, experience emotions and empathise. Individuals, communities, businesses, industries, charities, government and researchers will be like the 100 billion neurons in the brain, each communicating with thousands of others with countless engagements taking place every second. The ‘brain’ will learn new things which will help empower people to produce excellent research; using engagement they will refine ideas, gather data and ignite the curiosity of the next generation. For all involved, the engagement will enrich their personal and professional experience, producing new pathways and sparking new ideas, creating knowledge, sharing and translating information which in turn will lead to innovation. The possibilities are endless!

Networks, collaboration and cooperation with our millions of neurons, will create stronger relationships between society and the university. Engaging society and those whose lives are touched by the discoveries of research, will produce productive creativity in the translation of research and its application across the knowledge base affecting the university ‘brain’ to be better able to exploit national investment in research and development to widen research horizons and make a greater difference to society. On its own, a single neuron generates a tiny amount of impact, all neurons engaging and working together can generate maximum impact.

Advances in research mean that we are constantly learning more about the human brain and its untapped potential. I believe this is the case for the engaged universities of the future – an exciting prospect for all involved!

Share your visions of the engaged university, leave your comments below.

For more information on Engaged Futures, visit our website.

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