Three frontiers for public engagement

For a decade public engagement with research has been occupying a more and more central place in the UK research landscape. It feels like we are at something of a turning point, where we need to reflect on the 'public engagement agenda' and consider how or if it needs to be re-oriented in response to the changing environment. In doing this we should build on the evidence, and synthesis and reflection that the main funders of public engagment and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement undertook a few years ago.

One option is a wholescale re-orientation (or at least re-branding), building on the revitalised notion of universities' civic engagement, or adopting the US idea of a service mission for universities. This option was recently promoted in a thoughtful, if provacatively titled, post by Jonathan Grant and Deborah Bull. But as Jo Heaton argues in a recent post that I previously highlighted, there is a real risk of wasting the effort to develop effective public engagement over the last decade. As Jo argues, I agree there is more value on building on the successes of the past, rather than creating new silos or points of difference.

In doing this, however, we need to be alive to the changing environment, and to build on the last decade to push into new frontiers for public engagement. For me there are three frontiers to address, that are evident for both strategic reasons, and have emerged from the community over recent years.

Involving the public in shaping the direction of research

While there has been a significant increase in the volume of public engagement activity, this activity tends to be much more related to the transmission of information end of the engagement spectrum, and happens at the end of the research process. We need to increase the extent to which public engagement is used to help shape research. This is espeically important given the policy focus on delivering impact from research; the trajectory of impact delivery brings choices in terms of research focus and direction. Those choices need to be made in response to the views, needs and aspirations of society, and co-creation of research (understood broadly) can be an important aspect of achieving this objective.

We need to consider this at different levels within the research system. For example, in the Netherlands there has been work to seek citizen input at a whole system level, leading to the development of an engagement-informed national research agenda, which is now shaping funding programmes. At the same time, it should be possible to build engagement at the level of the design of specific research programmes, as well as for single projects, while recognising that not all research needs to be built on engagement in this way.

Increasing diversity and inclusion

Across the spectrum of organisations involved in public engagement with research there is an acknowledgement that there is a need to broaden the range of people involved in engagement. This comes both from the grass roots of organisations, as well as through strategic imperative. Too much engagement focuses on people who are already reached, or put another way, we need to extend public engagement to groups of people and places that are currently not engaged.

While this is easy to say and aspire to, it is harder to put into practice. A symptom of the problem is that many organisations involved in public engagement, including universities, are themselves not very diverse. This makes working with broader and different audiences more of a challenge, but one that should be central to the overall aim of a research and innovation system that works with and serves the whole of society.

Reaching through the impact journey

Over the last decade the focus has been on public engagement with research, but during that period there has also been an increasing attention to the delivery of impact, defined broadly, from research. Decisions about the trajectory of impact are made throughout the journey, and to ensure those choices are aligned with the needs of society there is the need for engagement at many points in the journey.

This notion of engagement through the impact journey is at least partially captured within the principles and practices of responsible research and innovation, and can be extended to the full range of impact types. But a key challenge here is that engagement needs to involve, and sometimes be led by stakeholders outside of the research system, including businesses and both governmental and non-governmental organisations. Universities and other research organisations bring skills and expertise that will be valuable for other organisations seeking to incorporate public engagement into their work. And there is also much to be learned by universities through these interactions.

These three frontiers for public engagement are challenging but should represent the next focus in my view. Building on the successes of the last decade there is a real opportunity to increase further the alignment of research and its impact with the needs and aspirations of society, from which will come transformational change.