PEACE at last? Public engagement in the STFC community

STFC Researchers

Sophie Duncan, the NCCPE's Deputy Director, shares her insights into the Science and Technology Facilities Council's recent public engagement review and subsequent report 'Public Engagement: Attitudes, Culture and Ethos'.

Last year I had the privilege of chairing a review for the Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC. The review sought to explore the attitudes, culture and ethos of public engagement in departments of STFC’s major stakeholder universities and the impact and efficacy of the current STFC funding schemes. Two research studies were conducted, and working alongside an expert working group and the STFC public engagement team, the results were synthesised, and key recommendations for STFC, heads of department, principal investigators and early career researchers were drawn out. 

The results provide a rich insight into the health of public engagement within the STFC community and are now available in the PEACE report. It makes an interesting read. Here are some of the things that struck me from being closely involved in the project.

Outreach really matters

Different disciplines favour different types of engagement, with outreach predominating being the predominate framing in the STFC community – inspiring and informing school groups with science. There is a long tradition of outreach, supported by expert outreach officers who are much valued by their colleagues for their expertise. Whilst there is interest in developing more deliberative forms of engagement, the work that is being done by the STFC community in inspiring people with science should not be underestimated. Over the past 12 months, in a variety of contexts, concerns have been raised about an assumed hierarchy in the engagement landscape – with collaborative approaches (particularly co-production of research) being assumed to be of more value than activities that seek to share or disseminate research. STFC are clear that they value all forms of engagement across the spectrum, and it is also something we at the NCCPE are keen to champion.

Develop a reflective culture

Evaluation continues to be an underutilised by many people working in public engagement, with little consistency as to how evaluation is used to inform approaches to engagement, or to assess the impact from this work. The STFC have been doing some really interesting work to develop an evaluation framework to help support its community to utilise evaluation in an effective way, so this will make a big difference. An easy win is to bring people together to share their experiences of engagement and to develop effective practice. By becoming a more reflective community, there is every likelihood that people will become even more effective in their engagement work.

Keep your hat on

The STFC community clearly sought to embed engagement through pathways to impact where possible, but there was a concern that these pathways to impact statements were not taken into proper account in the peer review process. One option is for those who are engagement literate to bring this expertise into the peer review process. I have heard comments that even those who have expertise in engagement have taken off their engagement hat when with their peers. Perhaps now is the time to keep your hat on!

To embed or not to embed, that is the question

Opinion was divided as to whether engagement funding should be supported by specific funding streams or embedded into research grants. Clearly there are benefits to each. It is important to recognise that engagement should be thought about at the start of a research process, and embedded into the approach taken, however there is perhaps an opportunity for more innovation in separate grant schemes, and a greater diversity of potential applicants.

The PEACE report has lots more of note but I hope the above serves to whet your appetite to find out more. It was a real treat to be part of this work, and to find out more about the STFC community is committed to public engagement with research, to enhance knowledge, and to inspire people to get involved.

I would be really interested in hearing comments on the reflections above,  and encourage you to share your reactions below.

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