Tuesday 7th December 2010
Day 1 of the National Coordinating Centre of Public Engagement (NCCPE) conference (held right next to Westminster Abbey!) was chaired by Prof Kathy Sykes.
The NCCPE in Bristol was established in 2008 as part of the £9.2m Beacons for Public Engagement initiative.
Kathy began by introducing the 'NCCPE Manifesto for Public Engagement' (launched on the day!).
Its an invaluable call, urging every university and research institute in the UK to commit to public engagement, stating:
We believe that universities and research institutes have a major responsibility to contribute to society through their public engagement, and that they have much to gain in return.
We are committed to sharing our knowledge, resources and skills with the public, and to listening to and learning from the expertise and insight of the different communities with which we engage.
We are committed to developing our approach to managing, supporting and delivering public engagement for the benefit of staff, students and the public, and to sharing what we learn about effective practice.
The full 'Manifesto for Public Engagement' booklet can be downloaded here covering topics such as:
- the impact of public engagement on your university, students and staff, civil society.
- what your university can do: developing a strategic approach to public engagement.
Also launched later that day was the NCCPE Concordat for engaging the public with research.
The timely launch of the Manifesto and Concordat provided a great backdrop for the two-day conference.
After a quick 'hands up' it seemed the 300-strong delegate list included: researchers; senior university managers; charities; university support staff; managers and policymakers from outside of the UK; those that would describe themselves as 'catalysts'; and community groups (surprising to see at any 'conventional' public engagement/science communication conference and very refreshing!).
In the first plenary ('The Case for Public Engagement') we heard from Prof Alan Thorpe (Chair, Research Councils UK) on the RCUK 'vision' of public engagement:
- for society to value and have confidence in research.
- to inspire young people to pursue research careers e.g. The Researchers in Residence scheme.
- to increase the societal impact of research.
Alan pointed us towards the 'what's in it for me?' RCUK publication for researchers and touched on the 'pathways to impact' statement ("a visible commitment that every researcher has to consider").
Terry Ryall (CEO for v, the National Young Volunteers Service) followed with an inspirational talk around the role of community groups, young people and youth workers.
The plenary closed with a Q&A session, encompassing:
- how can RCUK work with the media to ensure the correct narrative? The need to move towards a two-way dialogue and working with major media outlets.
- the training of HE students, volunteering and credit with the need to acknowledge the impact of teaching and learning as well.
- representatives from the Swedish Research Council being surprised at "how open the RCUK is to letting the public inform decisions and frame the research design".
Parallel sessions took over from here and I opted to attend:
(1) 'Issues and Challenges in Co-Inquiry Research' hosted by Prof Sarah Banks, representing the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (at Durham University) and also the University of Newcastle.
Dr Audley Genus presented his work with a housing co-op which included a series of workshops to research the community's energy needs and suppliers. Audley emphasised the "importance of building networks and sustaining them". He moved on to denounce the idea of 'selecting participants' via a rational sample with a successful community-University collaborative project being more dependent on "those who want to work with you and who you can work with".
Audley's top tips for researchers were:
- tune into what participants want.
- manage expectations.
- bring experts on board, bringing people together.
- deliver on your promises.
- write notes up quickly.
- get outcomes communicated clearly and quickly.
- try your best to build confidence about you.
Finally, Audley surmised that the "nature of co-inquiry means you have to be able to live with the idea that sometimes a project won't work in one, particular way".
During the co-inquiry (meaning co-operative experiential inquiry) session it was great to see community representation in the form of Maurice Clarkson from community group 'Thrive!'. We heard about Thrive!'s collaboration with the University of Durham on a project where medical students do placements in the community, experiencing the problems being faced, such as isolation and deprivation, first-hand. Maurice also mentioned the BBC documentary and their feature on YouTube which resulted from such projects, with Thrive! acting as a "brokerage firm between the University and the people they wanted to research".
The session also included discussion from Robert Moss and Dr Andrew Russell.
The Q&A that followed discussed the following:
- the practical ethical challenges associated with university-community collaboration, e.g. the sharing of power and leadership roles, respecting different expertise, confidentiality, acknowledgement of contributions, dissemination of outcomes, and issues surrounding university research ethics policies.
- the Participatory Network for Change (PNFC) conference is taking place on the 13th January 2011. For more information and to register (£10 attendance fee) you should contact Penny Vincent.
- the differences experienced across disciplines.
- "doing research with people rather than on people".
- where do you put your (limited) resources; capturing, evaluating and measuring the social impact or 'just getting on with it'?
Final thought: "if it doesn't make a difference in your lives/community, why bother?"
Overall, an inspirational session!
(2) 'Taster Session - Engaging the Social Sciences' co-hosted by Melanie Knetsch from RCUK Office in India and Clare Wilkinson from UWE.
The (varied) definitions of 'public(s)' and 'public engagement' came up, along with need for the 'public' and physical scientists to really grasp what social science is. Also on the menu: concerns about over-engagement, the 'general public' as some mythical construct, 'users' as non-academics, and an 'audience' with connotations of one-way, stunted dissemination.
Melanie pointed us towards the ESRC's 'social science for schools' website. It turns out Melanie had met dot.rural's Technical Director at a recent workshop in India. Small world.
After lunch, I plumped for the parallel session on:
(3) 'What does it take to do engagement well?', delivered by CUEeast at the University of East Anglia, and Lara Isbel from the Edinburgh Beltane.
This kicked off with a screening of a short film by two researchers who took to the streets of Norwich, armed with a video camera and a microphone, asking two very simple questions: What is research? Who is it for?
The main findings are summarised here:
- Need - the need should drive research (not the other way around) and the research must be targeted.
- Accessibility - its difficult for members of the 'public' to find research online, often only being able to access an abstract before needing to pay a subscription fee for the full article.
- Education - facts are important, c.f. journalism.
- Public Awareness - the researchers have a responsibility to understand more about concerns/needs of the public, especially regarding issues such as quality of life, health etc.
- Responsibility - its everyone's responsibility to engage in this two-way dialogue.
- Other - the most useful conversations were actually conducted off-camera.
The interactive, quick-fire Q&A exercise on perceptions and attitudes around public engagement (if you fled with the 'buzzer' you know who you are!) followed, with the aim of highlighting the subjectivity of perceptions. Any big surprises?...
- 3% of us in the room said they consider the primary purpose of public engagement to be to 'generate income and be 'accountable''.
- The percentage split between public engagement having to be 'paid' or 'voluntary' was pretty much 50-50. Would payment be an incentive for researchers? Should it be written into a researcher's job description? What is meant by 'payment' (financial/temporal/credits)?...
- The communication support most needed was thought to be related to identifying social, ethical and political issues and using technology and digital media.
- Regarding 'reflection', almost 70% of us present felt that we'd need more support with understanding/evidencing the impact of our work.
- The diversity and complexity of engagement activities, increasingly conducted across disciplines, means the skill-set required is no longer related to the type of engagement activity, but is much broader.
CUEeast gave us some tips on recognition and training...
- institutions should consider distributing awards for involvement in public engagement activities at, for example, graduation ceremonies.
- training at institutions should define clear learning outcomes, exploit links with professional career paths, and include reference to: film-making; presenting at Cafe Scientifiques; delivering professional demonstrations; understanding your audience; and empathy.
Lara presented the Edinburgh Beltane online training depository with the training agenda centred around the three key areas of communication, project management and public engagement pathways. For more info on this, see the interim review (p17) here.
Lara went on to emphasise:
- the inclusive approach adopted there with a philosophy to involve everyone at the institution (support staff, administrators, management, researchers, students...).
- the importance of sharing courses between institutions and the 'Beltane Bursary' where two places are reserved on any one course for those not affiliated with the host university.
Paul Manners (Director, NCCPE) chaired the final plenary of the day, entitled 'A President's Reflection on the Role of Engagement in Universities' with Dame Prof Nancy Rothwell (President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Manchester and Principal Investigator, Manchester Beacon).
Paul took the opportunity to announce the relaunched website which includes a section bringing together some of the evidence for the benefits of engagement to research and teaching.
He also reported on how researchers can be supported to develop their skills in engagement.
So I've rambled...
After grabbing a quick bite, we all piled onboard the Tattershall Castle for Bright Club. I really enjoyed listening to the Neuroscientist but there were (certain) parts that induced flashbacks of holidaying at Butlins in the '80s. Bizarre!
I was left wondering what day 2 would have in store...