Research intelligence - Tinkering produces converted Catalysts

Culture change is the focus of the Beacons' successors. Will it happen? asks Rachel Williams

May 10, 2012

Credit: Getty
Reaching out: the new initiative to encourage universities to engage with the public concentrates more on making it part of institutions' working culture

When the Beacons for Public Engagement were launched, they were billed as the biggest-ever UK initiative to get the public involved in the work of higher education institutions.

Based in Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, they were designed to be collaborative centres bringing together clusters of universities - 20 in all - and partner organisations including museums, businesses, charities and media organisations.

The funding, over four years, was worth £9.2 million; the vision was to bring about a long-term internal culture change in universities while at the same time pursuing practical projects that opened up higher education to the public.

The Beacons have now come to an end - in their original, centrally funded form at least - and have been replaced by the public engagement Catalysts. But first impressions are that these are watered-down versions of their predecessors.

Gone are the broad partnerships - the new Catalyst projects will run at eight individual institutions - and gone, too, are many of the funders.

Whereas the Beacons' cash came from Research Councils UK, the UK's higher education funding councils and the Wellcome Trust, funding for the Catalysts - just £2.4 million over three years - comes solely from the research councils.

And this time round, the spotlight is on research, rather than public engagement across the board, and there will be no grants or bursaries for encouraging academics to go out and pursue work in the community.

This is the greatest difference: the work is firmly focused on helping universities embed public engagement internally.

"The most important thing is to get the culture change right, because that's more sustainable," said Kerry Leslie, RCUK's head of public engagement.

"It's about creating a culture within the university where public engagement is seen as something alongside research that's rewarded and recognised."

Chief among the Catalysts' aims is to ensure that public engagement is recognised in institutions' promotions criteria, and to communicate to researchers that this is an opportunity for career enhancement.

Setting up structures for the celebration and rewarding of achievement - including, potentially, cash awards - is another strand.

At the Institute of Education, an assessment made before it successfully applied for Catalyst funding found that there had been no attempt to coordinate public engagement activity or to network learning and expertise across the institution.

Support for public engagement was embryonic, said Sandy Oliver, professor of public policy, but the group putting together the bid found, to its surprise, several examples of pioneering efforts.

"Across the institute there are pockets of enthusiasm for engaging the wider public in research; not just in the findings, but in choosing what research is to be done, or how," she said. "We'd like to build on that enthusiasm and help other people gain confidence in working with non-researchers, because it can be quite challenging if you haven't had any experience of it before."

Professor Oliver added that there was an unfounded fear that collaborating with the public devalued researchers' years of training by suggesting that "anybody could do it". "Of course anybody can't do it. What (the public) can do is offer some insights that it's worth the researcher taking account of when planning their work."

Creating a model

The IoE Catalyst's work will pool information from successful projects to create models of what works well, and offer training and mentoring in public engagement. It will also aim to spread the message that getting involved can lead to recognition and promotions. "It's about helping people to see that if they spend time engaging people more broadly, it isn't interrupting their career, it's actually contributing to their career progression," Professor Oliver said.

At the University of Nottingham, principal Catalysts investigator Sarah O'Hara, a professor of geography, said that although much is already being done at the institution, the general scale and impact of such work is unclear, even though "we've been talking about impact for what seems like for ever".

"We're of the view that there should be no research being done at this university that does not have an impact on the community," she said.

Nottingham's aim is for 10 per cent of the activities in any research project to involve some form of public engagement. And while it is important for researchers to go out into the community, Professor O'Hara also wants the changes to result in more members of the public visiting the campus.

"I get the sense that many people in Nottingham think [the university] is a bit like Hogwarts...that it's only for the select few that can get into this 'temple on the hill'. What we're trying to do is bring them in."

Continuing the good work

The Catalyst projects will engage with those continuing the Beacons' work at the original institutions, as well as the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, which was set up at the same time as the Beacons and remains in action.

Those who led the Beacons agree, broadly, that the Catalysts are worthy successors. Steve Cross, University College London's head of public engagement, is hoping to help the Catalysts' leaders. "I'd like to shield them from some of the unsuccessful ideas we tried, recognising that they have been given less money and less time than the Beacons were, but have been asked to do the same job," he said.

Dr Cross believes it is important that Catalyst money does not support actual research, other than an evaluation of its own effectiveness.

"The job for a Catalyst, as it was for a Beacon, is internal culture change," he said. "The more time and money put into that, the more successful they will be."

Bruce Etherington, who led the Welsh Beacon and is now Cardiff University's community engagement manager, said he thought the change to Catalysts would be "interesting".

"The fact that we had that money [for supporting research] attracted a lot of academics to us that we wouldn't have come across," he said. "It also allowed us to articulate much more clearly what sort of things we were looking for."

He is pleased that RCUK has put money back into the exercise, but expressed fears that the Catalyst projects will miss out on the benefits of cross-university working.

Heather Rea, of the Edinburgh Beltane Beacon, agreed that the chance to share ongoing learning with others was important. "The one thing that they're missing potentially, because the funding pot is so small, is the collaboration element," she said. But the RCUK's Dr Leslie said that although the links were invaluable for some, trying to apply ideas across the board could be challenging when institutions were so different.

She said that although the Beacons were "incredibly successful", there was "still quite a way to go with some of the other universities".

However, she maintained that there had been a marked improvement in the understanding of public engagement evident in the applications for the Catalysts. "It's unbelievable, there has been such a massive culture change in just those four years."

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