Public engagement: hidden costs for research careers?

Some early career scholars feel there is not enough support for academics who reach out, say Richard Watermeyer and Jamie Lewis

January 22, 2015

Source: Marcus Butt

People pay lip service to public engagement. They are happy for you to do it, but make sure that you do it in your own time

It is often assumed that academics’ efforts to engage the public are inherently a good thing.

The Public Understanding of Science movement has long backed the idea that the public must be included in science governance if science is to achieve openness, transparency and accountability, and that this approach helps to preserve public trust and confidence in science, or restore it where it has been lost or fractured.

Over the years, there has been a shift in emphasis from communication and understanding to dialogue and debate, captured by the term “public engagement”. This has come to symbolise a wider shift in higher education from universities as “ivory towers” to universities as transparent, porous, public institutions. Public engagement is touted by its advocates as a means with which to mobilise and empower the public and academe through a two-way relationship of trust, respect and interdependency, leading to collaboration and even co-production. These are honourable ambitions, which the academic community would do well to be guided by.

Yet there is a habitual disconnection between the rhetoric of higher education policy and the reality of academic practice. In today’s “neoliberalised” academy, in which increasing numbers of academics feel vulnerable, are we in danger of idealising the impact of public engagement on academic careers? Is public engagement rewarded and recognised by universities and appropriately institutionalised?

In a recent research project, we set out to gain an understanding of public engagement as experienced at the grass roots of the academy. We conducted 40 qualitative interviews with academics known for their work in public engagement from universities across the UK, focusing on those in the earlier stages of their careers. The response was less than positive.

Rather than identifying benefits, the majority of participants said that public engagement had harmed their profile as a “proper” research-active academic. Many complained that their work in the area had caused their peers and managers to view them more as administrators than academics, and some had even had their contracts redrawn to reflect this. A high proportion complained of a lack of interest, acknowledgement, incentivisation and reward for public engagement from their institution, and felt that promotion on the basis of public engagement work was unlikely.

“Doing public engagement has raised my profile in my institution but I don’t know how that will help me,” one said. “It doesn’t reflect in promotion. The real thing that still counts is publication. It can also be unhelpful. Being seen as ‘the public engagement person’ has ramifications in terms of increased admin. Anything external-facing comes to me because it fits my profile…If you’re not careful you can pigeonhole yourself.”

Others spoke of a culture of resistance from senior managers: “There is a kind of prejudice. Engagement is not what they are interested in. It’s when eyes begin to roll – especially at v-c level…[there is] a sense that ‘we don’t want the enthusiasts to take over’.”

Another reported that “People pay lip service to [public engagement]. They’re happy for you to do it, but make sure you do it in your own time. It does depend on who your manager is. Most heads of department will likely say ‘no’ unless you get money for it.”

It wasn’t all gloom and doom. A minority of interviewees did identify career benefits.

“I feel that it’s positive, particularly for more applied disciplines. It provides a way to recognise value…It’s affirmed my identity as an applied researcher,” as one academic put it.

Crucially, however, for all participants, hopes that the research excellence framework and its “impact” element would bring about a new wave of enthusiasm for public engagement had been dashed. Interviewees felt that their institutions’ impact case studies were dominated by research with “hard” economic impact rather than societal impacts.

So our findings point to a clear tension: between the benefits advertised by the higher education policy and funding community, and the real effects on academics’ identity, research practice and career progression. When it comes to academic careers, particularly in their early stages, is the argument that public engagement is inherently a “good thing” more rhetorical fancy than truth?

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