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Insights from the Engage Researchers’ Academy

The Engage Researchers’ Academy is a year-long career development course run by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) for “researchers with a passion for public engagement”. In advance of Session Two later this month, Dr Victoria Anker (School of History and Cultures) shares her thoughts on the course so far.

The central aim of the Engage Researchers’ Academy is “to equip participants with understanding, skills and practical experience to enhance the impact of their engagement and to become leaders in engaged research.” Having worked with heritage organisations, cultural charities, and local archives, I was thrilled when my application to attend the Academy was approved. Session One took place in June so I headed to Bristol where I met some amazing researchers working on a variety of projects including social literacy in Rwanda, the UK’s consumption of solar power, eighteenth-century sexuality, and robotic astronomy.

Day one focused on “Quality Engagement”. Using the NCCPE’s framework, we discussed what quality looks like and how to improve our own engagement.

About quality engagement’, ©NCCPE

The framework enabled us to break down our approach to public engagement into four areas:

  1. purpose (of engagement)
  2. (understanding the) people
  3. process (of engaging)
  4. evaluation

As a historian, I found our discussion around this framework especially illuminating. In the humanities, there’s a tendency to view the obvious purpose of public engagement as developing awareness (purpose) among the public (people). However, as our research increasingly involves working with non-academic partners – such as museums or archives – it’s important to think about how this engagement benefits them; for example, helping to reach new audiences, strengthening existing networks, or improving cataloguing systems.

Turning dissemination into engagement! ©Victoria Anker @Victoria_Anker

Our discussion also highlighted the importance of institutional backing and the need for a cultural change that recognises the valuable contribution public engagement can make to research beyond acting as a pathway to impact. The concept of “impactful research” has gained traction in recent years, as evidenced by the increased weighting of impact in REF, the rise of professional services roles dedicated to providing impact support, and the growing importance of impact in funding proposals. However, public engagement is often erroneously seen as the poor relation to impact and remains undervalued – even though several participants commented that engagement (for example, citizen science) is intrinsic to their research. A quick (and completely unscientific) canvas of the room revealed that the task of conducting engagement is often delegated to junior colleagues as a CV-enhancing exercise, and is sometimes viewed by senior researchers as a soft (and therefore more feminine) skill. This feeds into broader research on gender imbalance and precarious positions.

The afternoon session on leadership was especially stimulating in light of our discussion about attitudes towards public engagement. The early career researchers (myself included) were especially interested to learn how we might lead engagement activities when faced with academic apathy. This interactive session introduced us to the “Connected Leadership” model and had us all on our feet (no snoozing through the afternoon slump) answering multiple choice questions to identify our leadership style: direct, relational, or instrumental (also known as “denatured Machiavellianism”). None of these styles are inherently better than the others and it was interesting to see how many of us employed characteristics from more than one style (in my case, direct and instrumental).

Day one concluded with a jovial dinner and we regrouped on day two for a masterclass on media engagement led by Henderson Associates. Mark Norman challenged us to create a pitch which we then presented, dragon den style, to the “commissioning panel”. Working through this and other exercises (including a press release), it was obvious that clarity of message is key to success: what’s the story, why now, why should we care. Collectively, we thought this was similar to writing grant applications or article abstracts – you want to convince people that what you’ve found or argued is important in and of itself, but that it also has wider implications beyond the immediate field of research. This insight also helped us engage with each other and explain our research to other academics working in different disciplines.

Our discussion of how we use the media and what types of media we engage with (regional channels versus national broadcasters, TV versus radio) fed back to the question of motivation – of why we engage in public engagement in the first place. There’s no one-size-fits-all model of public engagement and the process will depend on your discipline and your purpose.

Why engage in public engagement? ©Beatriz Goulao, @beagoulao

With so much intellectual food for thought, it was great to see time for reflection built into our afternoon schedule. In our crisp new journals, we followed Gibb’s Reflective Cycle to think about our experiences and interactions over the last two days, and begin to explore how we might apply these insights to our own public engagement activities. I can’t wait for Session Two!

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