Monday, 24 January 2011

Cross-College Impact Workshop, University of Aberdeen

Wednesday 19th January 2011

I signed up to attend the University's first cross-college impact workshop, not really knowing what to expect or if I should/shouldn't be there, but curious following the impact discussions during the recent National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) conference.

The full collection of slides from the workshop can be downloaded here.

The agenda set the scene...
"This workshop will explore how staff at the University of Aberdeen can enhance the societal and economic impact of their research. Staff will also have an opportunity to feed into the development of a series of training workshops for 2011 designed to enhance our impact by learning how to more effectively engage end-users throughout the research process."

Mark Reed (Acting Director of ACES) chaired the discussions and Dominic Houlihan (Vice Principal for Research and Innovation) stood in for the Principal, Ian Diamond. It's no secret that Ian Diamond is a passionate supporter of the case for impact with research.

Dominic talked about:
- the 'indicators' used for identifying high-quality impact case studies across the five research areas, i.e. fundamental research with non-academic, traceable, and significant impact, reaching beyond the local;
- the difficulties with submitting interdisciplinary (e.g. dot.rural) case studies when no interdisciplinary assessment group exists, and the need to tailor case studies to specific assessment panel(s);
- the "significant" and 'non fluffy' contribution that public engagement events can make to impact case studies;
- the committees or panels who judge these case studies not being strictly academic, but rather comprising ~40% academics and ~60% 'users';
- and referred us to the impact case studies on the REF website - take a looky here.

Before the break we heard from each of the colleges in turn, with impact case studies from Jane Geddes (College of Arts and Social Sciences), Wendy Graham (College of Life Sciences and Medicine), and dot.rural's John Nelson (College of Physical Sciences).

Jane Geddes' (Professor of History of Art) hilarious presentation of the CASS impact case study, entitled 'three impact case studies in History of Art', spanned:
- from medieval door hinges, to the the Dover Castle regeneration scheme and a special Channel 4 'Time Team' feature;
- from establishing a museum for pictish stones at St. Vigeans, Arbroath, to a personal voyage of discovery in a cave in Socotra, and the publication of a book entitled 'The Temenos Academy: Blackers, Beasts and the Bestiary', with a plethora of famous patrons... counting the Dalai Lama amongst them!;
- from the St. Albans Psalter - a previously inaccessible, rare book in Germany - and a worldwide exhibition, to it now being a core text on the U.S. school syllabus... not forgetting the case for 'Christina goes to Hollywood' (the big time!).

Jane's slides attempt to summarise the vast, non-academic and rather unexpected impact of the projects she presented, including: visitor awards, re-skilling and training craftsmen, increasing visitor figures, spin-off CD guides, outreach lecture tours, school visits, books, exhibitions, and, of course, publications.

Jane's retrospective 'top tips' for achieving impact were:
- select a rich topic;
- innovate;
- foster partnerships with sponsors;
- develop an outreach audience.

Wendy Graham (Professor of Obstetric Epidemiology) presented the Immpact project ("impact with two 'm's!") - a global research initiative for the evaluation of safe motherhood intervention strategies.

Wendy described the "impact onion", explaining that its not clear which unit of assessment the Immpact project falls into. Is it 'policy'? 'Medicine'? 'Economics'? 'Social Science'?...

She emphasised the need to start such potentially high-impact projects by asking the key, end-user stakeholders questions and proposed to add 'influence' to Dominic's indicators.

Outputs of the Immpact project - many of which are still ongoing - include: strengthening research capacity; secondment to DFID; publications; public engagement; a successful bid for the largest single award at the University (~£20m); circulation of a viral film (watch it here); high-profile conference invitations, e.g. from Ban Ki-moon; reaching the G8 and the UN general assembly; and employing ~250 people in developing countries.

Finally, Wendy urged us to consider the 'presentation' of impact and the potential value of associated, powerful and emotive imagery.

John Nelson (Professor of Transport Studies) then went on to present the COPS case study on 'supporting the development of local sustainable transport solutions'.

John referred to the Yellow School Bus Commission and the 'smarter choices' initiative.

Outputs from the former included media activity, follow-on funding, and a new perspective on peer review. Meanwhile, public engagement opportunities, productivity and employment, policy guidance, and safety, economic and health implications were all presented as outputs from the smarter choices Scottish Government initiative.

Questions - relating to the research timeline (i.e. how recent should the original research be? and how far back should researchers be looking?), the balance of project success and quality impact vs luck or coincidence (i.e. should researchers aim to be more reactive vs proactive?), value for money (i.e. an indicator employed by research councils, but not an impact metric?), the challenges of building a case for impact particularly for early-stage career researchers, and the potential for a 'template' to capture impact across the board - formed the basis of the discussions that followed. An additional discussion centred on the level of institutional support which may/must be provided.

After the break, we heard from Liz Rattray (Deputy Director, Research & Innovation, University of Aberdeen) and Paul van Gardingen (Strategic Advisor on Impact to the ESRC-DFID Joint Scheme for Research on International Development) on 'funding opportunities to enhance the impact of your research' and 'learning how to achieve excellence with impact', respectively.

Liz prompted us to consider the 'routes' to impact and referred us to the Research Council UK (RCUK) 'Knowledge Transfer Portal'. The routes fall under three categories: outputs (e.g. papers, patents etc), mechanisms (e.g. Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, exchanges, consultancy, engagement etc) and impact (e.g. policy change, jobs, health benefits etc).

Liz suggested that 'people and exchange programmes' are perhaps under-utilised and that this may be one particular area to focus and expand on.

She also pointed us towards the Scottish Economics and Social Science Knowledge Exchange Network event taking place on 23rd February 2011 in Edinburgh (contact for more information).

For more information on funding opportunities, Liz referred us to the Research and Innovation web pages here.

Lastly, Liz took questions on:
- the RCUK knowledge transfer portal;
- the previous NERC scheme that brought smaller projects together under one umbrella project, to have a bigger impact en masse;
- the potential to grow the ERASMUS student exchange programme;
- and the link between consultancy opportunities and REF.

Paul presented an Amazonian case study aligned with his research interests, explained that he believes "research excellence is the starting point - necessary but not sufficient" with a credible pathway to impact also needed, and declared "impact is about people" the take home message.

He also highlighted the importance of a "narrative, story approach to impact" as well as capacity building, recommended that there may often be more than one pathway to impact, and suggested that research councils are increasingly focusing on longer-term, larger and more collaborative research projects with impact.

With regards to 'telling the story' - potentially as a way of bridging the Arts and Sciences under the framework's 'communication' section? - Paul pointed us towards the Wellcome Trust website.

Paul responded to questions around balancing the economic and 'quality of life' impact metrics, the idea of establishing a quota of projects dedicated to 'blue sky' research, and the goal of producing an impact case study framework or template that's sufficiently broad to apply to all disciplines, and indeed across/within disciplines. It was also suggested that a forum to facilitate 'learning lessons' of unexpected/unwanted/negative research project outcomes may prove invaluable.

In terms of writing pathway to impact statements, Paul's tips include:
- being modest and focusing on what can be achieved and doing it well;
- acknowledging the potential for impact in ways which may or may not be realised.

Dominic closed the workshop, after which everyone was eager head to lunch.

Thanks to all those at ACES, the Centre for Sustainable International Development and Immpact for coordinating the day and facilitating lively debate.

It was really positive to see such a great turnout, particularly the support from senior members of University staff, attending the whole workshop: the university's commitment to impact is clear.

A quick reminder that the full collection of slides from the workshop can be downloaded here.

So, what did it all mean? What did I get out of the discussions?

Well, I left wondering...
-> is there a new/different role for public engagement officers, like myself, to play in the pathway to impact writing and review stages? e.g. c.f. The University of Bristol and UCL case studies here.
-> how can dot.rural further pursue knowledge transfer/exchange networks and opportunities?
-> can the University deliver the crucial capacity building and training programmes needed to support, identify and write high-quality pathway to impact statements? and how can dot.rural lead/support this?
-> is there one online central repository, capturing all available literature (e.g. the RCUK handbooks and the 'learning lessons' proposed forum) on impact and pathways to impact statements?
-> who would it be useful to see present case studies at future workshops in this new cross-college impact series?

Answers on a postcard*...


*or in fact in the blog comment section!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

NCCPE Conference, London - Day 2

OK, OK, a little later than expected... Here's the follow on to Day 1...

Tuesday 8th December 2010

Paul Gough (UWE) chaired the first plenary of day 2 on 'Public Engagement in Hard Times'. During this, we heard from David Sweeney (Research, Innovation and Skills, HEFCE) and Linda Quinn (the Big Lottery Fund).

David talked about 'uncertain times' and the continued commitment to the strategic plan... and admitted that we're "unlikely to see the repeat of initiatives such as the Beacons because of fundamental changes to the funding landscape".

He went on to propose that institutions should be given the flexibility to use core funds as they wish (e.g. for public engagement) and provide support staff to assist research staff when writing 'Pathways to Impact' statements, together.

Linda described the "Big Society" through empowerment, engagement and localism. She raised the possibility for organisations - including universities! - to apply for lottery funding for specific projects. Linda's other points included asking how the community can identify and encourage partnerships between the voluntary sector and HEIs and that "in bad times, the lottery continues to grow".

For the parallel sessions, I opted for:
(1) 'Embedding Public Engagement in Higher Education - Issues and Actions' hosted by Danny Burns from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University.

In groups, we worked through the 'draft conclusions and recommendations of the National Actions Research programme' document. We discussed the content, presentation and the terminology, before feeding back to the larger group.

A few key issues were identified here, including:
- The role of Heads of Department (or indeed of Schools/Colleges), equity and payment.
- Space and place, e.g. physical infrastructure and accessibility considerations... What would buildings look like if they were built for public engagement? How can we meet expectations? We may be engaging with schools but many school buildings are of higher quality than those of universities!
- Good public engagement needs to be responsive i.e. the current systems are designed for high volumes of research and teaching.
- Recognition and incentives to change e.g. within promotion criteria.
- Organisation and management of public engagement i.e. its needs to be planned and organised at a group level.

I was really chuffed to see 7.(e) incorporated: "We make some big assumptions because we are functioning in a web-based world. Some publics not accessible through that means. Greater use can be made of local notice-boards, the local paper and so on."

Some of the other comments and queries related to issues of: language, terminology used; definitions, boundaries and disciplines set; illustrations, videos and supplementary materials potentially being useful; making the document 'future proof'.

The full report can be accessed here.

(2) Taster session on 'Using Segmentation Tools for Public Engagement Benefit' hosted by Clive Barnet from the Open University.

Clive explained how there's considerable literature on why people don't opt to use market segmentation tools in public engagement.

He identified three fields in which such tools may be applied:
(i) Public sector (DEFRA, DFID etc) - segmenting to change people's attitudes, to change people's behaviour. [Technographic, participatory segmentation]
(ii) The Arts, broadcasting, media and cultural sectors - market segmentation in areas where its all about audience engagement, the audience/visitor.
(iii) Campaigning, the WWF, etc - where the market is values-based.

From this, Clive went on to identify four issues, or 'tensions', for HEIs.
- How public(s) are conceptualised; found or made? Qualitative methodologies to shape or find these public(s)?
- The continuum of different levels of engagement.
- Using segmentation in a discriminatory way; in a more inclusive way for diversity through specific targeting.
- The ethical and reputational issues regarding the use of marketing tools.

(3) 'Public Engagement as a Pathway to Impact Round Table' hosted by Ruth Potter from RCUK.

Although I knew little about what to expect, from a personal and dot.rural perspective, this session turned out to be the most useful and interesting of the two-day conference.

Referring back to the 'what's in it for me?' RCUK publication for researchers (see the Day 1 blog) Ruth presented her top tips for writing 'Pathways to Impact' statements... and to getting projects funded:
- consider and include project specific costs.
- think about how to maximise the benefits.
- focus on two-way engagement.

You can download a copy of Ruth's slides on 'Public Engagement with Research as a Pathway to Impact' here.

We then heard from Phillipa Bayley and Steve Cross on some of the exciting work being done at the University of Bristol and UCL, respectively, to support researchers in writing high-quality impact statements.

A few points from Phillipa's case-study...
* Considerations when writing statements
- Who/what might be impacted? e.g. people, knowledge, the economy, society.
- Think creatively about forms of engagement.
- Focus on two-way engagement.
- When doing public engagement, always talk about 'impact'.
- Link into existing networks.
- Build in strategies to form longer-term partnerships with communities and organisations.
- Always give detailed costings.
* Putting institutional support in place
- Establish an impact working group.
- Run faculty-based impact workshops.
- Provide support for individual academics.
- Supplement these with online resources.

You can download a copy of Phillipa's slides on 'Impact at the University of Bristol' here.

And similarly, some from Steve...
* Further considerations when writing impact statements
- Ensure the statement includes a willingness to pursue a variety of interests and opportunities, both public and press related.
- Identify the specific communities and/or areas aiming to reach or engage with.
- Specify a few things (i.e. events or activities) which can definitely be delivered.
- ...And add in a few potential others which may happen, depending on availability of resources and the unpredictability of the research findings, for example.

Both Phillipa and Steve explained how they regularly review impact statements - from a public engagement perspective - before submission to the research councils.

Some great models for dot.rural and the University of Aberdeen to adopt perhaps?

During the workshop, we also heard about the dangerous confusion or mis-use of 'dissemination' and 'two-way dialogue', along with a call for the language and message of impact to be standardised across research councils.

The output of the 'Pathways to Impact' session can be downloaded here.

The final plenary of the day, and of the conference, entitled 'Public Engagement: What Might the Future Hold?', was chaired by Paul Manners (Director, NCCPE) and presented by Gisele Yasmeen (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and Sir David Watson (University of Oxford).

Gisele's presentation was particularly exciting - urging us to reflect on the three 'types of communicators' in attendance. It seems they are, the communicators: who view "engagement as a contact sport"; falling under the PR and communications umbrella; known as the 'techno crowd' (focusing on IT, open access and open data).

Finally, David had the non-trivial task of broaching 'what the future holds...'. Of course, he couldn't avoid mentioning HEIs and the credit crunch. He went on to spin this as yielding "forks in the road"! David considers such forks to include:
1. student choices
2. public investment - emphasising the need for HEIs to be ready when the government returns to a state of investment...
3. business/industrial investment - providing incentives for investment and the requirement on universities to be more/less business-like...
4. more/less autonomy - the issue of governance, reiterating that there are going to be no more special initiatives...
5. more/less government interference
6. the 'for profit' sector - the need for fostering more partnerships
7. competition for staff - the possibility of a brain-drain...
8. 'world classness'
9. indigenous/transnational development
10. closing down or opening up? What will happen to the sector as a whole?

So, I hope that provides an overview of the first (of many!) NCCPE two-day conference, in which I lost count of the number of times 'toolkits', 'public(s)', 'impact'... and, of course, 'Brian Cox' were mentioned! :-)

See you next year!

Friday, 14 January 2011

ACES participatory training

Yesterday, Mukta, Peter and I were at an ACES (Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability) training session on participatory research. For the uninitiated, that means involving "stakeholders" (think we all agreed that's a horrible word) in your research as much as possible and from as early as possible so that they contribute to the outcomes - so highly relevant to all dot.rural projects and activities.

We covered loads of ground: stakeholder analysis, the carousel method, multi-criteria evaluation, grounded theory, semi-structured interviews - some I'd never heard of but all of which I'll use or at least consider using in my PhD work, not necessarily in the ways I'd anticipated. For example, grounded theory can be applied to literature reviews, multi-criteria evaluation to personal decisions and the carousel method to any kind of meeting format (an effective alternative to breakout groups/reporting back), so it's worth attending even if you're not directly engaging with participants. And most of the techniques can be used in pretty much any environment, from hi-tech computer labs to the Kalihari Desert.

In the afternoon we devoted quite a bit of time to interviews, covering consent, trust, legitimacy, body language, cultural sensitivities and the wisdom of wearing v-necks and nose-rings.

Mark Reed (facilitator) used a participatory format for the session so there was a lot of flexibility in the topics covered, we practised some methods in the course of the discussion, and we had plenty of input from fellow participants.

I came away wanting to learn much, much more. Go if you get the chance!