Academics who take to heart “the rhetoric of policy” and dedicate significant amounts of their time to public engagement are “virtually sacrificing [their] academic career”.
This is the view of 40 academics known for public engagement who were interviewed for a paper by Richard Watermeyer, associate professor in the sociology of education at the University of Warwick.
According to the paper, “Lost in the ‘third space’: the impact of public engagement in higher education on academic identity, research practice and career progression”, published last month in the European Journal of Higher Education, the “dominant prescription” is that academics should carry out public engagement because it is inherently “a good thing” and “reveals academics to be publicly interested, involved, responsive and transparent knowledge workers”.
However, respondents typically reported that their own public engagement was “inhibitive and deleterious to [their] research identities and careers” because career progression is “tied almost exclusively to” research prowess.
Senior managers’ estimations of public engagement “were felt to be near universally abject and characterized by declamations of [it] as parasitic”.
One manager said that colleagues saw public engagement as “academic profligacy” that should only be done outside contracted hours: “It is when eyes begin to roll – especially at a [vice-chancellor] level, [illustrating] a sense that, ‘we don’t want the enthusiasts to take over’.”
The potential for public engagement to take up research time is a particular peril for junior scholars, who can – as one respondent put it – “get brought into [public engagement] projects as cheap labour”.
Respondents dismissed the idea that the research excellence framework has improved matters, since public engagement is still seen as “a ‘soft’ and less easily measured version of ‘stakeholder’ engagement – the latter synonymous with knowledge translation, exploitation and commercialization”.
One interviewee said that a peer-reviewed assessment of public engagement could help raise its status: “I don’t know whether we want to go along that route but ultimately evaluation…results in credentials,” she said.