Hello, hello, I’m back with more chat about the Engage conference. Just a warning, this will be ongoing for the next few blog posts. After that I’m taking a break for Christmas, and then I’ll be back to blogging as I’ll be firmly in the process of traveling adventures for my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship. Anyway, Engage. This blog post focusses on the second session from the first day of the conference; a plenary titled ‘Navigating change’, and a plenary workshop titled ‘stories of change’. The discussion here definitely followed on from the topics covered in the session before it, so head to my previous post about the Engage conference if you’d like to catch up.
Public engagement is not a new thing; for decades scientists and researchers have worked to engage the public with their work. That said, the way that we do public engagement, and the environment in which we are doing it is definitely changing. This session reflected that, with talks from Nancy Rothwell from the University of Manchester, and Jennifer Wallace from Carnegie UK Trust. Just a side note – typing ‘Nancy Rothwell’ made me realise then that the Engage conference schedule did not have titles on it, Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell is President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Manchester and a non-executive director of AstraZeneca – in summary, she’s kind of a big deal. It’s nice that Engage don’t put titles on the conference schedule though, it puts people on more of an even playing field.
Nancy’s talk looked at public engagement in sceptical times. Looking at the events of the past few years it’s pretty easy to see why we are in sceptical times; Trump, Brexit, Michael Gove declaring that ‘the people of Great Britain have had enough of experts’, and a whole host of other things that make 2016-2018 look like a particularly terrifying episode of Black Mirror.
This part of the ‘navigating change’ session left me feeling determined. Nancy explained that “it is more important now, than ever, for universities to engage widely”, what I enjoyed most about her talk though, was that she gave practical advice on how to do engagement. For many of the attendees that were public engagement professionals, this might have been old news, but as an enthusiastic researcher I found this part really useful. She discussed the need for public engagement to be thoroughly embedded into the work that we do, and then gave examples of the fantastic work that’s being done at the University of Manchester (UoM were awarded with a gold Engage Watermark at the conference too – a brilliant achievement!). I thought it was great for Engage to have a speaker from University leadership; as I said in my previous blog post, there may be some perception of a ‘them vs us’ culture with regards to public engagement and social responsibilities of higher education, and it was heartening to see Nancy talk with such passion. She reinforced the need for public engagement to be evaluated with the same level of rigour as we expect from research and teaching, and explained that Professor Brian Cox’s public engagement work earned him a 4 star REF impact case study!
Following Nancy’s talk, we heard from Jennifer Wallace – a self-proclaimed ‘non’. Jennifer is non-academic, non-government and non- many other things; one thing she is, is brilliant. She lies outside of where the power lies, and encourages the ‘blending’ of areas of expertise. I loved this idea; in health services research we talk about having multidisciplinary teams, but the word ‘blending’ seems much more cohesive, and also suggests that individuals can be bringing more than one perspective and area of expertise to a project rather than needing to have a different person for each skill or knowledge area. I found that comforting, and thought of Dr Heather Morgan as my very own role model for blended researchers – if you don’t know or follow Heather, then you are seriously missing out. She is a force to be reckoned with for all the right reasons, and I’m pretty sure that’s because of her expert blend of skills and interests.
Anyway, back to Jennifer… The thing that really stood out to me during her talk were the results of a study that had been carried out by the Carnegie UK Trust (a think tank aiming to improve the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the UK). The study found that trust in academic evidence is relatively high (63% of respondents), and 90% of people say that they evidence influences their decisions. The problem is that use of academic evidence is low (35% of respondents). This is a solvable problem, and it’s up to us (I’m speaking as an academic here) to do something about it. The process of accessing academic evidence is too convoluted right now; we need to make it easier for people to find and use the work that we are doing.
After the plenary we split up into tables to find out about stories of change.
Eileen Martin from The Science Shop, which is a joint project between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, was sat at our table, and she gave us a whistle-stopped tour of the life of The Science Shop since it was established in 1998. I found her experiences fascinating and wanted to share a bit about The Science Shop here too.
The Science Shop is essentially a broker that brings research needs of the local community into the university, and matches up students (usually taught MSc students) with research projects in response to those needs. The Science Shop is an international initiative, with branches all over Europe, and Eileen told us about the challenges she’d experience to get the project established in Belfast. After this session ended I had a look to see if there are any Science Shops near me, but it doesn’t look like there are any in Scotland just yet – I will definitely be keeping an eye out for new ones cropping up as they sound like fantastic ways to integrate and embed the needs of the community with what’s going on inside universities.