Scholars on the public stage deserve a hand

It is time to consider more structured support for academics who undertake the vital task of improving public engagement

December 3, 2015
Line of people applauding

Imagine, if you will, a game of academic Top Trumps. For the uninitiated, this playground favourite from before the days of Snapchat involves comparing cards featuring two rivals who are given scores out of 10 across a range of attributes. Facing off in this particular game aren’t sporting stars or superheroes but two University of Manchester physicists.

On the one hand you have Sir Andre Geim, a Nobel laureate (10 points), responsible for a flood of graphene-related patents (9 points), with the unique status of being an immigrant whom Theresa May is glad to have in the UK (6 points).

On the other there is Brian Cox, the undisputed Voice of Science (10 points), an undergraduate application magnet (8 points), and owner of the world’s most famous fringe (award points as you see fit).

So who trumps who? Who is the more valuable to Manchester? To science generally and physics in particular?

OK, this is a bit silly, but in an age when impact and public engagement are firmly on the agenda for both universities and academics, the question of what value is ascribed to these activities, to whom that value accrues, and how it should be rewarded, are no small questions.

One of the trickier aspects of the impact agenda is that public engagement is explicitly valuable to an institution, via the research excellence framework, only if it fits a certain template – if it is about a specific piece of research and has a clear and measurable effect on the public.

At a time when there are so many demands on academics’ time, many more obviously tied to income streams, it would hardly be surprising if universities were to overlook the value of such work.

This is certainly a worry among academics: a recent research paper based on interviews with 40 academics known for their public engagement reported that those who bought into the “rhetoric” on this were “virtually sacrificing [their] academic career”, so poorly was it rewarded.

This may paint too bleak a picture. There are plenty of examples of investment in public engagement: professorships with explicit focus on communicating an academic discipline; well-established schemes such as the Wellcome Trust’s Public Engagement Fellowships; and – as we report in our feature this week – new funding streams that are appearing, too.

But none of this could be described as systemic support, comparable with that offered to research (grants and block funding) or teaching (tuition fees).

This is probably fair enough, but it could also be argued that there is a case for more structured support for an area of academic endeavour that can be so powerful in supporting the core goals of both institutions and disciplines.

One option could be to incorporate some measure of public engagement in the metrics powering the teaching excellence framework – taking a broader view of teaching to incorporate educating the wider public, too. It would be a reward for efforts that do much for higher education’s place in the national consciousness, and arguably help to deliver the favourable treatment seen in last week’s spending review.

W. H. Auden wrote that poetry “makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper”.

It’s not a mission statement that will wash for the 21st-century academic.

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Print headline: Give those on stage a hand

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