Steps to take to encourage more support for public engagement in research

By fostering a culture in which public engagement is not just encouraged but embedded into the fabric of academic life, institutions can leave a lasting impact on both the scholarly community and the world at large

Lyn R. Keith's avatar
26 Feb 2024
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Involving the public in research is not a trend; it is crucial to the future of academia. More and more institutions are embracing it to enhance the relevance and impact of their research and to democratise knowledge. This article will delve into some reasons why this is so important and how to embed more support for public engagement.

There are several reasons why public engagement in research is important. They include:

Research relevance: public engagement ensures that academic research addresses the needs and concerns of society. By actively involving the public, researchers can confront real-world challenges and contribute meaningfully to communities. In the area of environmental sustainability, for instance, the University of Exeter’s Exeter City Futures project involves citizens in the co-creation of sustainable urban solutions, addressing issues such as transport, energy and air quality to make cities more sustainable and liveable.

The democratisation of knowledge: public engagement plays a vital role in expanding the impact of research beyond academic circles. It helps research reach a wider audience, influence policymaking and contribute to positive societal change. Open access initiatives, such as the Public Library of Science (Plos), break down barriers by providing global access to research, enabling researchers to share their findings with policymakers, educators and the public.

Research impact: public engagement amplifies the impact of research by enabling it to reach a broader audience, in some cases influencing policy decisions and contributing to positive societal change.

Let’s now delve into specific strategies that institutions should take to generate institution-wide support for public engagement.

Establish and communicate a clear vision

Universities must explicitly articulate their commitment to public engagement in their mission statements and strategic plans. This clarity helps academics to understand the institution’s expectations and encourages a collective sense of purpose.

The University of California, Davis has seamlessly integrated public engagement into its core operations. By effectively conveying the importance and methodology of partnering with the community, the institution has cultivated an environment in which faculty are motivated to engage in projects that meet local needs. This integration is guided by the Public Scholarship for the Public Good framework, which outlines three primary objectives:

  • To recognise and reward public scholarship across research, teaching and creative endeavours
  • To enhance and expand community-based learning opportunities
  • To boost community engagement that is both reciprocal and impactful.

Appoint the right leaders

Leadership plays a pivotal role in steering the ship towards a culture that champions public engagement. Appointing leaders who are passionate about the cause and about integrating it into the institution’s governance structure is key.

Provide the right training

Institutions such as the University of Cambridge offer training programmes that equip researchers, staff and students with vital communication and outreach skills. Initiatives such as the Public Engagement Starter Fund provide small grants for innovative research engagement activities, ensuring that the academic community is well prepared to engage diverse audiences effectively.

Recognise and incentivise

Universities should recognise and reward researchers who actively participate in public engagement activities and incorporate these efforts into promotion and tenure criteria.

This recognition not only motivates individuals but also signals the institution’s commitment to valuing and celebrating public engagement.

Evaluate and adapt

To ensure the success of public engagement initiatives, universities should implement evaluation metrics such as the number of community-based projects carried out, changes in community well-being or the economic impact of research on local areas. Frequent evaluations enable institutions to adjust their approaches, respond to changing community requirements and showcase the concrete effects their research has on social progress.

The University of Glasgow acknowledges the critical need for continuous assessment of its public engagement initiatives to ensure that they are effectively refined and enhanced. The university uses a comprehensive evaluation framework that examines both the reach (quantifying how extensive and diverse the impact is, and by whom it is experienced) and the significance (assessing the depth and transformative effect of the engagement activities).

It uses a variety of approaches to evaluate its effectiveness, including questionnaires, interviews, comment cards, guestbooks and more creative methodologies such as graffiti walls. Such a thorough process of evaluation is pivotal for the university to stay attuned to the evolving needs and expectations of the community, ensuring that its engagement efforts are both relevant and impactful.

By fostering a culture in which public engagement is not just encouraged but embedded into the fabric of academic life, institutions can unlock the full potential of their research, leaving a lasting impact on both the scholarly community and the world at large. Embracing public engagement is not just a strategic choice; it is an ethical imperative that aligns academic pursuits with the greater good of society.

Lyn R. Keith is a programme officer at the University of the West Indies.

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