Is public engagement really career limiting?

Research suggests that UK academics are rarely rewarded for public engagement. Is the same true in the US, asks Andrew Maynard?

July 14, 2015

As an academic, I take public engagement seriously.  I see it as a responsibility that comes with the societally-sanctioned licence to study the things that I’m passionate about. And I consider it a privilege to interact with others who can inform what I do as well as potentially benefitting from it.  Yet I’d be the first to admit that engaging with non-academics isn’t exactly a badge of honour within the hallowed halls of academia.

Mostly, this feeling that spending time talking with and listening to people who aren’t academically “institutionalized” (or are not potential donors) isn’t valued is just that: a feeling; an ill-defined sense that your peers and your academic unit think of you as slightly less “worthy” – an academic lightweight. It’s a nagging doubt that’s easy to put down to insecurity or paranoia. But two recent papers by Richard Watermeyer at the University of Warwick (the second covered in Times Higher Education’s recent article “Public engagement means ‘sacrificing’ academic career”) suggest that there may be more substance to the perception that public engagement places academics at a disadvantage in their institutions.

Academics and public engagement

The papers report on a series of interviews Watermeyer conducted with between 40 and 45 British academics. All were accredited by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) as “Public Engagement Ambassadors”, and so were, as Watermeyer describes them, a “minority and marginal group of academics, distinguished for their achievements in [public engagement]”.

The interviews were specifically aimed at exploring participants’ perceptions of the value and impact of  public engagement on their academic work and their careers.

By way of context, it’s important to realize that both of these papers are specific to the higher education system in the UK – where there have been considerable moves in recent years to promote societal relevance in academic research. It’s also important to understand that what is reported is a synthesis of personal perceptions – it’s a qualitative study that probes how academics who participate substantially in public engagement feel it impacts their lives as academics.  Nevertheless, I must confess that I found the results demoralizing.

Institutional support for public engagement

In the paper “Public intellectuals vs. new public management: the defeat of public engagement in higher education“, Watermeyer looks at the extent to which public engagement receives institutional support within the UK. As the title suggests, the news isn’t good. From the interviews, a clear disconnect emerges between personal motives to engage, and institutional support for engagement. There is a strong perception amongst a number of participants that some institutions actively discourage engagement.

Watermeyer concludes of his interviewees: “They are a group whose victory is chimeric or perhaps pyrrhic, where their attempts to penetrate the mainstream of academic culture have kept them firmly outside or at best at the limits of accepted practice. They are concurrently a group who in the main, find their efforts to engage the public inhibited by the conventions of academic practice and the preponderance of institutional resistance.”

Perceived impact on career paths

The second paper – “Lost in the ‘third space’: the impact of public engagement in higher education on academic identity, research practice and career progression” – looks more closely at perceived impacts of public engagement on career progression in academia.  

Here Watermeyer concludes: “The [public engagement] academic is also one at risk. At risk of becoming lost, somewhere between the rhetoric of policy, which recommends all such things to all academicians, and the reality of executing such a role in a space, perhaps as one respondent stated, a ‘baseless space’, that does not support or recognize such endeavour.”

Together, these two papers paint a picture of academic institutions that talk the talk of public engagement, but are institutionally incapable of walking the walk – and either intentionally or inadvertently penalise those that do.

This becomes painfully apparent in a number of quotes from participants in the study. For example:

  • “There is a kind of prejudice. Engagement is not what they [senior management] are interested in. It’s when eyes begin to roll – especially at a [vice-chancellor] level, and a sense that, ‘we don’t want the enthusiasts to take over’.”
  • “People pay lip-service to it. They’re happy for you to do it but make sure you do it on your own time.”
  • “Whilst personally productive it’s been a complete non-starter in terms of career progression. It’s not something I could do on the terms of academic development. Consequently, I’ve gone from being highly engaged in public and community engagement to being not involved at all.”
  • “You’re virtually sacrificing your academic career. This is not something that gets captured in your career path and this dissuades most people from embracing public engagement.”
  • “Public engagement conflicts with an incredibly competitive labour market. There’s no question it diverts researchers and is disruptive to career progression.”
  • “Promotion on the basis of [public engagement]? That’s hard when you’re not on hard money, and most aren’t. The rewards and recognition system just isn’t there. There’s no reward for being a good communicator. There’s no career pathway for engagement.”
  • “I don’t know anyone who has gained promotion through their engagement.”

Personal value of engagement

Yet despite a clear lack of institutional support for public engagement, a number of participants recognised the personal value it holds.  This was often rooted in a sense of social responsibility and personal reward. There was a strong sense of participants engaging beyond academia because they thought it was the right thing to do, despite the professional barriers and personal cost.

It may be that these perceptions are not an accurate indicator of the reality around academic public engagement in the UK.  It may be that the UK is a unique case, and the same is not seen elsewhere in the world.  However, from my own experiences, I wouldn’t expect the responses to be too dissimilar in the US.

Is the US different?

In May of this year, I was co-organiser of a meeting at the University of Michigan on the role of academic in public and political discourse.  One of the themes to emerge was the lack of recognition of public engagement in the tenure process – that cultural bastion of academic recognition.  Embedded within this was a strongly hinted at cultural and institutional bias against engagement that decreased research productivity.

This – together with a more general dismissal of the relevance of public engagement – is certainly something that I’ve observed as a faculty member and former department chair in the US.  I’ve seen tenure-track faculty advised on numerous occasions to just focus on their research productivity until they get tenure. Even beyond the tenure process, public engagement has not been considered in annual reviews in my own institution – with the primary factors in determining many pay rises being research dollars awarded and publications. There’s a subtle but prevalent culture in my experience of seeing engagement as something that’s OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the “real business” of the academy. And where there is recognition, it’s often the patronizing praise you sometimes see well-meaning but struggling students receiving when they exceed below-average expectations.

Academics engage, despite the barriers

Yet despite this seeming institutional marginalization of public engagement, there is a vibrant community of academics who do engage – and engage effectively – in the US. They often do this despite the system – because it’s important to them, not because it will advance their careers. This reflects Watermayer’s UK findings that academics who think that public engagement is important, do it despite the barriers.

There’s also considerable heavyweight support for this.  In the recent Michigan meeting, Jane Lubchenco – former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – spoke eloquently about the need to support, promote and encourage public engagement among scientists.

Lubchenco made the point that academics – early career scientists in particular – are engaging anyway, no matter what they are advised. It’s something I see every day at the University of Michigan, where there is a hunger amongst PhD students in particular for support and opportunities in engaging with people and communities outside their academic circles.

Public engagement as an integral part of the academic enterprise

Lubchenco also argued that engagement is important for the academic enterprise – that it is part and parcel of improving lives and society through the research we are socially sanctioned to conduct. And this is where I find the conclusions of Watermeyer particularly disturbing.

Public engagement – true two-way communication and partnerships between academic and non-academic communities – is about more than personal duty or enjoyment. It’s an essential part of ensuring society gets a return on its investment in the “academy”, and that research and discovery translate into creating a better world and more fulfilled lives for everyone. It’s something that should be integral to academic culture, and the institutions that support it.

Some institutions recognize this.  Arizona State University for instance – my new academic home from August – is built on eight “design aspirations” that emphasise the institution’s role in society. Yet this embracing of a broader vision of academic responsibilities and aspirations is not prevalent – certainly in the US.

One clear conclusion from the Watermeyer papers is that, in the UK, academic institutions are locked into a path of performance evaluation that public engagement doesn’t fit into – it’s tough to measure the quality and impact of engagement. Ironically, this means that, while engagement is seen as laudable, because it isn’t easily measurable, it is institutionally marginalized. And worse – with an emphasis on numerically assessed outputs, ineffective but quantifiable public engagement activities potentially end up taking precedence over meaningful but more subjective initiatives.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure I would agree that pubic engagement stunts academic careers – for one, it depends on what your definition of a successful career is. But it certainly doesn’t help achieve prominence amongst your academic peers. If public engagement is to have a greater impact within academia and society, this needs to change.

Public engagement needs to be built on more than personal responsibility and enjoyment.  There needs to be strong institutional recognition of its importance and value as an integral part of the academic enterprise. There needs to be a cultural shift within the academy itself, where academics and their professional organisations recognise and honour those who engage with non-academic constituencies. And there need to be better ways of supporting and rewarding public engagement as an activity that is integral to being a successful academic.

Andrew Maynard is professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. This posting first appeared on his personal blog, 2020 Science.

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