On public engagement with research and activism

In the last decade the breadth of activities that we regard as public engagement has expanded considerably. As well as informing and inspiring, consulting and co-creating are now also considered integral and important parts of the landscape. This is a good thing.

At the same time, the nature of the publics that are involved in engagement has expanded. Direct interactions with publics are still important, but the links with community engagement and the role of community groups as intermediaries have increased. This is also a good thing.

While this has been happening resources have become constrained, not just for universities, but also for community groups. This can make delivering partnerships challenging, but it also brings into sharp focus the benefits that researcher/community partnerships can bring. The need to work in as effective a way as possible, drawing on the best possible evidence has never been greater.

But with this closer working comes a risk: that researchers become too close to the objectives of the community groups and publics with which they are working. The motivation for public engagement becomes activism. Rather than focussing on research that makes a difference, effort becomes directed to making the difference to which a particular group aspires.

At the recent Engage 2015 conference I heard comments about a linkage between public engagement and activism a number of times. There was even an impassioned plea in favour in a plenary session. I think this trend is dangerous and unhelpful for three principal reasons.

First, when researchers become associated with a particular cause, it compromises the value of the engagement in the first place. While I wouldn’t subscribe to the view that research findings represent ‘the truth’ about an issue, a core value of research is to take a critical standpoint. Researchers all come with their biases, but the process of research should include interrogating and challenging those biases. That requires distance. To borrow the phrase from Roger Pielke Jr, researchers should be Honest Brokers, not Activists.

My second concern is that linking public engagement to activism inevitably politicises engagement. All activism is political in one form or another. Becoming associated with activism takes universities, which are funded from the public purse, into difficult territory. Researchers have a duty to be led by the evidence rather than personal convictions, and any impression to the contrary is likely to be damaging in terms of the Government support for research and public engagement.

Finally, I think researchers need to be careful to consider the democratic legitimacy of organisations that they work with. Working with a community group and adopting their viewpoint and objectives is not necessarily the same as working with the community itself. And in fact one of the benefits public engagement can bring is to encourage a broader framing of issues, including extending discussions beyond the community group and into the wider community.

All of this poses some challenges for the co-production of knowledge with partner organisations. As ever, getting the dialogue right at the start of the collaboration is essential, and researchers need to be clear that they bring evidence and critique that might, or might not, support preconceived ideas, intuition or ideology. Being comfortable with this should be at the heart of real and productive partnerships.