Forms of engagement

Last month I attended the Engage 2012 conference, organised by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. The conference was a fantastic celebration of the diverse range of activities that UK universities are under-taking under the banner of public engagement. I was struck by how far we have come in the last decade. Public engagement is now considered a mainstream activity in many universities and by many people who work in universities. In particular, there are now many institutions that consider being ‘engaged’ to be part of their missions.

But I was left with a nagging concern…

As universities embrace public engagement more, I sense that we are seeing a change in the discourse about public engagement with research. The notion of public engagement grew up as a response to the challenge of deficit-model-thinking that was epitomized by the term ‘public understanding of science’. In this framing, the idea of engagement was about encouraging two-way communication between researchers and publics, especially around controversial emerging technologies. As thinking developed, the idea of upstream engagement emerged; dialogue needs to happen before technologies become locked in. And currently thinking is moving on again into the new idea of responsible innovation, which includes aspects of upstream engagement, but also considerations of risk and benefit, and ethical and social impact of new technologies. Both businesses and researchers involved in developing new technologies are part of this picture.

But there is a different sort of development of engagement also going on in parallel. More and more there is discussion of engagement at a university level and here engagement is being used in a rather different sense. First of all it is not just about research. In this sense, engagement can include almost any interaction a university or its staff have with the world outside of the institution. It can be about teaching as much as research, involve the undergraduate students as much as the research staff of the university, and also has a very clear local focus on the communities that live in and around the physical location of the university. In this thread there is talk about rediscovering the forgotten ‘civic mission’ of many of our universities that were set up by local benefactors to deliver benefits specifically to their local communities.

There is much to admire, applaud and encourage in this concept of the engaged university, to which increasing numbers are becoming committed. However, it is also important to recognise how different this is from the ideas of engagement as a component of responsible innovation. To achieve this objective the engagement needs to have a strong research focus. It also needs to be at least national, and always have its eye to the international landscape. Technology development and deployment happens in a global context. The local focus of the engaged civic university risks turning the debate about technologies into a parochial one, where the benefits of technologies are accepted and even embraced, as long as the downsides and risks can be outsourced elsewhere.

We need to make sure that we create the conditions where both university-led community engagement can flourish alongside effective dialogue about emerging technologies. Both are valuable, but one must not be allowed to dominate over the other.