Public Engagement in the REF: Where’s our ambition?

By Caroline Gillett, Public Engagement with Research Officer:

I recently attended a session, ‘Lessons from the REF’, run by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). The day-long workshop focused on the outcomes of their review of the impact case studies and impact templates submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014 which featured public engagement.

Below are some of the key points I took from the day, which can help us learn about how to take Public Engagement activities forward:


  • Nearly 50% of the impact case studies featured PE
  • Terminology differed across disciplines and currently “people don’t use public engagement to describe what the funders consider public engagement”. Only through this recognition can we collectively champion for this type of work to be better recognized, rewarded and resourced.
  • Publics were usually either listed by their demographics or by the roles they played. For example business might refer to ‘consumers’ whereas civil society might talk of ‘volunteers’


  • Most PE case studies were described in terms of cultural and societal impacts, probably due to reasons of practicality (evaluation time period / evidence capture). Impacts deriving from PE in other areas (e.g. economic, environmental and health benefits) might need to be tracked longitudinally (beyond the scope of REF) before anything tangible can be ‘evidenced’ at scale. This does PE a disservice, suggesting only some impacts are possible via this route.
  • The ‘reach and significance’ criteria are vague. Greater transparency around how judgements were made is needed to aid PE practitioners advising researchers on where best to concentrate their efforts in order to evidence impact from PE for REF.


  • PE was not detrimental to award scores when used as the main route to impact and PE case studies were as likely to be rated 4* as those not featuring PE.
  • PE case studies nearly always focused on a change in understanding or awareness, they rarely involved capacity building, co-design and collaboration. Researchers tended instead to default to the paradigm of public engagement as ‘dissemination’.
  • The credibility of the impacts delivered by PE appeared to hinge on the ability of the narrative to address the following:
    • What? Why should we care about the research, what was distinctive in its potential?
    • Where? What was the external context that motivated the engagement?
    • Why? What was purposeful about the engagement?
    • Who? Were publics/stakeholders clearly identified and involvement rationalized?
    • When? Was timing linked to the purpose and differentiated by research phase?
    • How? The methods / pathways to impact and the engagement ‘mix’
    • What impact? Type of impact achieved and outcomes realized (credible evidence)


For the highest scoring Units of Assessment there was at least one really strong example of PE featured within the template. Typically such templates articulated the following…

  • PE was integral to impact strategy
  • Publics were clearly articulated
  • Explicit rationale for the PE activity
  • Authentic flavour to the PE, sensitive to external context
  • Investment in sustained partnership building /collaboration with external organizations
  • Appropriate methods, resource investment including developing PE expertise
  • Creating a culture to support and incentivise researchers to do public engagement


  • Most REF2014 case studies sat under conceptual impact, there is thus huge potential to animate PE life through instrumental and capacity building impact strands.
  • More robust and realistic expert judgements are needed about the impacts that arise from public engagement. Credibility of cases might even be measured in an iterative approach over future REF cycles.
  • Significance will increasingly rest on a convincing account of the external context motivating the engagement from outset.
  • Higher quality PE, rather than more PE is needed
  • Researchers should be socially curious about current understanding of their research areas, particularly around dominant meanings and how these circulate.

About the contributor:

Caroline is the University’s Public Engagement with Research (PER) Officer, a post funded through the RCUK Catalyst Seed Fund. Caroline works to support activities related to PER with the aim of moving towards greater understanding and delivery of research quality, impact and visibility (for REF but also more broadly). The focus of her work is specifically on creating momentum for culture change around public engagement with research to ensure such activity is better embedded and recognized within the University’s policies, procedures and practices. She is also a key member of the Public Engagement with Research Committee (PERC) and the module leader for PGCARMS Public Engagement for Postgraduates Graduate School course.