UKRI leaves the starting blocks: how will public engagement fare?

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Paul Manners, NCCPE Director, reflects on the role of public engagement within UKRI, which comes into being under the leadership of Sir Mark Walport at the beginning of April.

A recent debate at the Foundation for Science and Technology provided some welcome intelligence about the future of public engagement within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).  Sir Mark Walport outlined the broad thrust of UKRI strategy, and was joined by three panellists to provide an external perspective, including NESTA’s executive director of Research Analysis and Policy, Kirsten Bound.

There’s a comprehensive write up of the event on the FST website (and Katherine Mathieson blogged about it for the British Science Association).  Here are some of the key headlines.

An important focus for UKRI

In his opening address, Sir Mark identified public engagement as an important focus for UKRI, in response to a variety of external drivers including population growth; climate change and other grand challenges; and the huge changes being brought about by the so called ‘fourth industrial revolution’.  The event report recorded his argument that these social changes mean that ‘public engagement would be a key issue for UKRI: establishing trustworthiness at a time of increasing mistrust of the establishment and of experts; engaging with the role of social media and the implications of globalisation; and facing into the ethical challenges often posed by science – where ‘science meets values’'.

Sir Mark also re-affirmed a commitment to realising social impact from research: ‘Supporting societal impact was a key priority, emerging from the cross cutting challenges to which he had referred and would cover programmes which had cultural, economic and global impact. There would be a particular focus on health, wellbeing, resilience and security.'

Identifying opportunities

Panellist Kirsten Bound (NESTA) identified two key opportunities for UKRI: harnessing big data to power collective intelligence, and aiming for a ‘genuine revolution in terms of public engagement with science and research. This was an area where the UK had led the field. There was a risk we were falling behind’.  She argued for more dynamic, effective public engagement ‘to support priority setting, to test and inform evidence, and where appropriate to set a higher bar for evidence'.

The reported discussion saw delegates identifying a range of reasons why public engagement was important for UKRI:

‘It presented opportunities to contribute to ‘setting the bar’ on funding decisions. It could force a focus on interdisciplinarity, particularly with the social sciences (as had been evidenced in the Foresight programme on cities). It could provide a platform for interpreting science to the public. It could be used to support societal engagement through international collaboration on a global as well as on a national or more local basis, vital given the huge societal impact that innovation would have in every country.’

A more inclusive approach

The discussion identified that a more inclusive approach to engagement was important: It was also suggested that current societal developments – the differential impact of investment in terms of place and the growing societal inequalities which had driven Brexit and similar indications of public disaffection elsewhere in the world – pointed to a missing, ignored audience and to a need for science, as well as government and society more generally, to reach and engage blue collar workers.’

There was also acknowledgement that diversity remained a profound challenge and ‘needed engagement at every level'.

A tipping point?

What does this tell us about the future of public engagement within UKRI?  Many of the arguments are familiar – around trustworthiness, accountability, relevance and social responsibility, arguments which have underpinned the case for culture change which we have been making since the NCCPE was established in 2008.  What is encouraging is that engaging with the public – in this debate at least – was understood to be fundamental to making good decisions about research and innovation, not an ‘add on’. The optimist in me wonders - could the formation of UKRI act as a ‘tipping point’ in the slow journey to see public engagement embedded in research culture and practice? There’s clearly a lot to play for in the weeks and months ahead.

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