I have been rather disappointed not to have bumped into a bear or monkey on the tube today. But there is still time. Who knows what I shall do if I happen to bump into a panda. Will it be a real panda fleeing Chinese scientists? Or a Chinese scientist tracking down an errant panda? I’ll let you know.
Dressing things up to be what they are not, and dressing down what has become uncomfortably problematic is a common pursuit in the often pantomime world of policy and politics.
Last night I went to the launch of the Research Councils UK Concordat for Engaging the Public in Research. AMRC has signed-up as a supporter of the Concordat on the basis that it is at the very least a good foundation stone on which to build future public engagement work and, importantly, to build partnerships aimed at delivering better public engagement. At its simplest, it is about getting people working off the same page – no more, no less and none the worse for it.
Unfortunately I missed the Science Minister, David Willett’s, speech at the beginning although I was interested that in his supporting foreword to the Concordat he made no mention of the Big Society. Perhaps he did in his remarks and, if so, I’d like to know from anyone who was there, if no reason than to ward me off drawing false conclusions about it being a missing statement in the text.
But I did hear the Q&A with the audience afterwards and it was good to hear Willetts emphasise ‘involvement and participation’ as neglected themes in public engagement. But also fascinating that there were so many questions and comments from the audience about the relevance of the Concordat to the impact assessment element of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). It betrayed residual anxiety about this issue and, out of that anxiety, seemed to stem a desire to make the Concordat serve a specific purpose for which it was not designed although its relevance to the REF is of course undeniable.
I thought Nicola Dandridge (Chief Executive, Universities UK) got it right in her concluding remarks of the evening. I am paraphrasing her, but Nicola said she hoped that we would interpret the Concordat not through this narrow lense, but in the much broader terms of universities fulfilling their mission and objectives as research institutions.
The fact is that those who continue to see public engagement as a bit of window-dressing rather than integral to research have missed the point entirely. And if the Concordat can begin to move us in that direction then it’s a dress I am prepared to wear!