On Wednesday a consortium of 15 research funders and Universities UK led by the Wellcome Trust published its report ‘Factors affecting public engagement by researchers.’ The Wellcome Trust launch website is here and the report itself can be found here.
It’s an important piece of work; a ‘state of the nation’ commentary on public engagement activity across all research disciplines. The last such exercise was conducted by the Royal Society in 2006.
I am pleased NIHR supported this study and that it was on the project Steering Group. Public engagement activity by clinicians was measured for the first time and you can find out more about these results on the NIHR website here. The results for this and other disciplines will provide an important benchmark against which to measure progress in the future
The consortium has also published a discussion document to spark debate. It asks people to address a series of questions. The consortium will be meeting again in the New Year to discuss the response and how we can build on the what has been achieved so far. All of this I support. Indeed, it has caused me to reflect on a number of issues from a personal perspective.
The first of these is ‘how deep does public engagement actually run through research?’ The report states that 8 out of ten researchers carried out some form of public engagement in the last year or so. Which is great. But are they really doing public engagement or do they think they are? For example: a significant number would seem to active in social media. We all know what a great tool social media can be. Yet it can also be fools gold for the well-intentioned but naïve researcher; a short-cut to ticking the box for the lazy or disinterested one. How can we foster an environment in which public engagement is better understood and where turning theory into practice feels straightforward for the time-short, cash-strapped researcher?
The second issue for me is ‘how far has public engagement actually come over the last ten years?’ The number of researchers who value public engagement is shown to have risen from 28 in 2006 to 37 per cent in 2015. Yet that’s an average rise of less than 1% each year. I want more. I want it to happen faster. It needs to. Otherwise it’s going to be 2053 before we reach a creditable 75% of the research workforce considering it as part of what they do.
I am being facetious of course. But I personally feel we need to challenge ourselves over this ‘rose-tinted’ notion that public engagement is now a mainstream activity. I know what people are trying to say but the dictionary definition of ‘mainstream’ is:
‘the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend: the mainstream of American culture.’
I think we are some distance from this state of being. Culture change has not yet happened. Sure, there is much noise around public engagement – marketers would call it the noise disturbance you get when a new product is launched – and ever-greater activity. But if you are someone leading public engagement or a public contributor working with one of our great universities ask yourselves: is it really considered a normal part of the way the business is being run? I don’t think so. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) is running a poll on its website which would seem to bear this out.
When I do workshops with researchers its clear that most still find this ‘stuff’ alien to them and need help to feel confident in it. On the flip side is the fact that the vast majority want to do it. That’s why the message in the report about supporting the work-force better is so important.
One of the findings in the report that I continue to be dumbfounded by is that many ‘enablers’ (39%) – people who have some responsibility for promoting and advancing public engagement in their institutions – did not know if their organisation had a public engagement policy?
The manager in me wants to ask: how can you not know that? Should you not take personal responsibility for finding this out? The more collegiate part of me – the bit that has been formed by hard, personal experience – knows that it is a common occurrence for institutions to give people the responsibility for this area and then leave them up the creek without a paddle. This points to a lack of institutional leadership and strategic thought on public engagement which is why it is so important that this study has been supported by the major funders and Universities UK.
I hope that I am not coming over as negative – as someone who is trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I am ever the optimist. But to move forward, we need to be prepared to make a gritty assessment of the present and the willingness of institutions to support us.
Think about it, when you are at the pub, it’s whether there is money in the pot and/or your pals are willing to have another round that determines if the glass is half-full or half-empty.
Have a great weekend.