Public engagement with research has come a long way since 2000. The pace of change has quickened significantly following the establishment of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), the completion of the Beacons for Public Engagement programme, the embedding of research impact within Research Council grant applications and the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014), and the 2010 publication of the RCUK’s Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research.
Whilst each of these developments was significant, the publication of the RCUK Concordat three years ago was a watershed. In effect, its four principles were a mandate for embedding public engagement within the UK’s research culture. To celebrate the third anniversary of the Concordat's publication RCUK have published another booklet called Inspiration to Engage.
Embedding culture change
The Concordat has had a significant impact at the Open University. Alongside complementary research papers, policy documents and resources, including the NCCPE-developed self-assessment ‘EDGE Tool’, we used the Concordat’s principles to develop an OU proposal to the RCUK’s Public Engagement with Research (PER) Catalyst programme.
Funds secured under this scheme are supporting a three-year action research project, ‘An open research university’, led by our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research, Scholarship and Quality), Professor Tim Blackman. Through this project, the Open University has made a strategic commitment to public engagement with research, addressing the Concordat’s four principles.
The University created a new senior leadership role: ‘University Champion for Public Engagement with Research’ to lead the OU's PER Catalyst project. I have been the Champion for just over 15 months, responsible for leading the Open University’s PER Catalyst project and helping to shape strategic objectives for public engagement with research. This has raised the profile of my research, and provided opportunities to secure further research funding and develop partnership working, such as the School University Partnership Initiative (SUPI), in which we are working closely with the Denbigh Teaching School Alliance (DTSA).
Strategy and mission
Adopting an action research approach the Catalyst project team have explored researcher’s views with the aim of constructing a shared understanding of the purposes, values and meanings associated with engaging publics with different academic disciplines. To this end, we have secured the University’s signature on the NCCPE’s Manifesto for Public Engagement. Following this commitment, and taking on board the findings from our research, we’ll develop and embed a University mission for public engagement, involving stakeholders from across the institution. This will complement the OU’s existing commitment to social justice and openness to people, places, methods and ideas.
The Open University has committed to regularly review public engagement with research both within the institution and across the UK Higher Education sector. In addressing this Concordat principle, we are working closely with the NCCPE and RCUK, as one of the eight Public Engagement with Research (PER) Catalysts. Closer to home, we have investigated, for example through the CROS and PIRLS surveys, OU researchers’ views about and attitudes to public engagement with research. The results of the recent surveys, conducted in Spring 2013, are currently being analysed by the Catalyst team; we hope to run a comparative survey in 2015. The survey findings will inform the programme of researcher training and support that we are organising with our Research Career Development team.
Recognising and rewarding excellence
Finally, the Concordat calls for researchers to be recognised and valued for excellent public engagement with research work. For me, reward and recognition for involvement in high-quality public engagement activities is the final part of the jigsaw. Creating and valuing a culture of reflective practice, in which researchers strategically plan, effectively operationalise, and successfully evaluate public engagement with research, requires researchers to commit to a career path that encompasses public engagement. Some researchers have established and successful partnerships with relevant publics who value opportunities to engage in meaningful ways. These researchers seek recognition for their excellent work through academic promotion. With this issue in mind the Open University is reviewing its promotion criteria; one of the key areas for discussion is how we recognise and reward excellence in public engagement.
We must also support researchers who are new to this agenda, and those who are developing knowledge and skills through opportunities for professional development, and partnership working. In the next 12 months we will be issuing a call for proposals for public engagement with research projects and an awards scheme to provide opportunities to innovate and a chance to reward excellence. Both schemes will be open to researchers at all levels, from postgraduate research students to the professoriate. But these longer term goals for researchers must also be complemented through assessments and identification of support needs through routine career appraisals, combined with support during pre-award applications and post-award success with research funding.
These are significant challenges. They require culture change in how researchers conceptualise and operationalise their research work. However, if we are successful researchers will generate the evidence required to demonstrate excellence in their public engagement with research work. Ultimately, however, this is about research with people at the centre. If researchers change their practices they, and the publics they engage with, will gain from these experiences.