NERC Community Consultation on Public Engagement

Written by Dr Carl Stevenson, College of Life & Environmental Sciences public engagement champion

NERC is currently planning a funding call under its public engagement strategyhttp://www.nerc.ac.uk/about/whatwedo/engage/public/ . The aim of this call is to invest in a large scale, ambitious and collaborative project of up to £1.3M over three years. As part of the planning for this call and to help shape and guide the nature and remit of the call, NERC held a Community Consultation event in Manchester today (Thursday 6th April, 2017). I was lucky enough to be one of the 80 who were invited out of over 170 applicants. Participants included environmental and geoscientists, public engagement specialists and arts and humanities and social scientists.

The intension at the moment is to have a call for a single, large and ambitious consortium bid for the 1.3M funding. There will, however, also be a smaller capacity building call in advance of the main call. The smaller call is expected to happen in May and, to build capacity, will focus on early career researchers and PhDs. The smaller call is likely to be for 4-6 projects of 50-100k each. Much of the focus of the day long workshop was to help determine how these calls will be phrased or what they will ask.

Ahead of the workshop, the following aims were set out:

  1. Unearth different perspectives on the challenges of public engagement with contemporary issues in environmental science
  2. Build on previous experience in public engagement
  3. Set the tone for interdisciplinary and co-production approaches
  4. dentify capacity building, training and development needs that can be provided through this call

Although each aim was given attention throughout the day in the series of group and plenary discussions and reporting back, the main focus tended to gravitate toward things like the nature of public engagement, what various audiences were (e.g. publics, public’s or publics’) and most importantly how NERC could or should support this. In this respect, aim 1 and 3 were unpacked most and a couple of topics emerged. Actually a very long list of highlights were noted down, but I will try to boil down what highlights stuck with me. Some of this is slightly paraphrased and is my take on discussions, so another attendee might have a slightly different take.

  • Inclusivity (including equality)

Generally, public engagement aims to include the public in research. This has a couple of perspectives. First refers to underrepresented groups. Public engagement often only really reaches audiences that are self-selecting, i.e. those who actively find out about events and opportunities and show up or their own volition. However, underrepresented groups may not be able to attend events (access), may not be interested (relevance), might be interested but feel that they have more pressing issues (obstacles).

Inclusivity also refers to the range of institutions being included (or excluded). In this context it meant having equal or more recognised status (equality again), capacity to engage or incentive (funding). Often smaller organisations simply do not have the capacity to engage with university research even though there may well be mutual benefit. NERC is restricted in term of what or who they can fund, but the ability of non HEI organisations to bid for funding was brought up.

Inclusivity also concerns the higher education sector in itself. There was a reference made to ‘star researchers’ (which was met with a sharp intake of breath across the room), and a clear point in response (which lots of nodding heads) that (research) funding is inherently exclusive (as 90% of research applicants well know). Likewise any kind of consortium, will exclude those not in it.

Sticking with the HE sector, it was noted that public engagement should be important at all career stages. This may be partly a relevance issue (see below) but it should be something only early career researchers worry about.

Lastly, inclusion of non-science from arts and humanities and social sciences. There are several complex and nuanced contemporary issues that span politics, policy and how people use and interpret the media that scientists are not equipped to deal with. Understanding the barriers and recognising the opportunities will require collaboration across the disciplines.

  •  Legacy

Again I will unpack this in a couple of ways. Legacy meaning longevity of the energy put into public engagement. In universities, fellows, postgraduate students, postdocs, even academics, come and go and injections of funding for projects last as long as the funding. It was noted several times that often the activity that surrounded the central project is what sticks – the glue – and is what public engagement energy needs to harness.

Culture change is another way to look at this and echoes the inclusivity within HEIs noted above. Ultimately it all boils down to winning funding and this dictates how HEI managers/academic leaders set priorities. Academics and researchers are unavoidably beholden to this so the onus here is to ensure that public engagement gets the recognition that it deserves.

Part of establishing or ensuring recognition for public engagement is developing our understanding of public engagement. It is a thing that clearly overlaps with and links to a range of activities including engagement with schools (in particular 6th forms and colleges as an admissions priority) and feeding into impact for things like REF. However it is important to recognise public engagement as more than outreach but including involvement and interaction. An aim of culture change is to embed public engagement throughout the research process/lifecycle and not just a thing that is done at the end. Fostering an ‘ecosystem’ of public engagement was particularly pithy way, I felt, to capture a self-sustaining public engagement culture.

Impact has become a somewhat loaded term in HE these days, and measuring impact now has a pay grade associated with it. So for public engagement to have a legacy, it needs to be added to the number somehow, i.e. we need to be able to measure its impact. Wrapped up in this is our ability to adapt to the changing ways that people (public and researchers) communicate. Social media is the obvious example and various institutions have varying approaches to social media policy and attitudes to social media but adapting to a dynamic and sometimes fickle consumption of social media and the effect of this on conventional media needs to be considered or even addressed (clearly relevant also to inclusion).

  •  Relevance

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” and the anti-intellectual, post-truth or post-enlightenment era that seems to be dawning was hinted at, referred to and hung over discussions. The nuance of this particular topic is beyond my intellectual skills to unpack sensibly, but this is why the social scientists were there and keen to contribute. We need them. This is where informed and responsible debate comes into NERC’s desired outcomes, but it was acknowledged that explaining things on TV doesn’t work or (to be fair) isn’t sufficient. Anti-science and pseudoscience has been around for a long time and something that was established is that we need to harness the experience and good practice across a range of disciplines that exists, for example in psychology, in combating these.

Thinking more inwardly, driving culture change and better understanding of public engagement and what we mean by ‘the public’ contributes toward the relevance of research to the public. I mentioned this already in terms of inclusivity and reaching underrepresented groups. There is overlap in that part of establishing relevance is convincing the public that research is relevant. Traditionally this is outreach, but to bore down a little more, identifying audiences and enabling involvement and inclusion may allow public engagement to make research relevant. ‘Co-production’ was mentioned several times and examples of this include citizen science projects.

In a more rhetorical way, relevance also means asking what is public engagement for or what is the purpose? This point could be applied to anyone developing public engagement or to reflecting on the point of this whole workshop and resultant call.

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I am conscious that I have not mentioned any specific environmental issues. ‘Contemporary issues in environmental science’ was a sort of title for the day, but it felt that everyone in the room was aware of these or what they were. Fracking, pollution, air quality, climate change… yeah sure, and there were experts in all these, but it was also clear that there would be no platform to pitch for any particular topic. The discussion and attentions was directed, somewhat, to how these topics might be broached in terms of public engagement and considering the three tenets outlined above. It looks like NERC now expect to receive bids that will include a range of contemporary environmental issues covered by consortia (after a fashion or in various ways) but with a motivation make genuine change (not allowed to say step change). Some final things to leave this on are what NERC want the outcomes to be. These are:

  • National impact – large scale, ambitious, game changing, legacy
  • Collaborative – cross disciplinary, diverse, inclusive
  • Capacity building – foster excellence in future of public engagement
  • Relevance – identify audiences, engage with them, value to ‘public’ and researchers
  • Responsible debate – on difficult or controversial topics, informed debate, balanced views, contemporary issues

And lastly, what mechanisms will be built into the call. There was a clear notion that traditional funding mechanisms and models might not be best suited. In particular inclusivity is an issue here, and there will likely be requirement for any bid to include partners from outside HE and be cross disciplinary including arts and humanities.

Capacity building small projects call expected in May and we wait with baited breath for the main call in due course.

[word cloud made from highlights from group discussions]

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