Research intelligence: Engage the selfish gene

Public engagement can boost researchers' careers, an RCUK booklet claims. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 18, 2010

Earlier promotion, better research, more effective grant applications and additional funding are among the benefits that await academics who engage with the public.

That is the message from Research Councils UK, which has launched a charm offensive to encourage more researchers to embrace the idea.

The council has released a booklet stressing the "selfish" benefits to researchers of engaging with the public, along with a fresh "vision" for the area.

A frequent complaint from academics is that there is little point undertaking engagement activities because they are neither properly recognised nor rewarded.

It may be a nice altruistic activity, the argument goes, but who has the time when there is research to be done, papers to produce and grants to apply for? RCUK's booklet What's in it for Me? The Benefits of Public Engagement for Researchers, turns this view on its head.

Tangible benefits

Published last week to mark National Science and Engineering Week, the booklet uses real-life examples of engagement's tangible benefits to academics.

A lot of the material aimed at getting researchers to talk to the public is based around the benefits to others, explained Kerry Leslie, head of RCUK public engagement with research.

"Obviously there are enormous numbers of benefits - but we wanted to produce something that was directed at researchers themselves. It is a selfish document that says: 'Look, if you do public engagement, it can really help you and your research.'?"

Given the lack of quantitative data on the topic, the publication is based on case studies.

It lists 12 benefits of public engagement. These include: skills development; career enhancement; new research perspectives; a higher personal profile; greater influence and networking opportunities; increased student recruitment; enhanced research quality and impact; additional funding; and personal reward and enjoyment.

One example given is that of Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, who explains how his books and television appearances led to the creation of a chair in public engagement at his institution, which in turn led to his promotion to a professorship "a few years early".

In another example, Colin Pulham, a chemistry researcher at the University of Edinburgh, explains how public engagement enhanced his ability to interact with industrial funders.

The booklet is aimed at both researchers and their supervisors, who are often reluctant to grant time off for such activities.

Its release follows a number of recent developments in this area. Politicians have indicated that they want public engagement to count in the forthcoming research excellence framework, and a group set up by the government to assess the field has suggested that such work should become compulsory.

The report by the Science for All Expert Group recommends the development of a concordat setting out the public-engagement expectations and responsibilities of research funders and institutions. RCUK is now working on the idea.

Dr Leslie said that RCUK was not saying public engagement was compulsory at this stage, but that it did want to "take little steps" in that direction.

Also being held is an interim evaluation of the Beacons for Public Engagement programme, which was designed to implement internal "culture change" in universities.

The pilot scheme, which features a £1 million annual contribution from RCUK's £2.5 million public-engagement budget, finishes in 2012. The results of the interim evaluation are expected in July.

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