This is the third of four blog posts that cover my attendance and learnings from the Engage conference – they can be read individually, but to get the most out of them I’d recommend reading the previous 2 (here and here) before you return to this one.
I have a lot of thoughts to squeeze into this blog post, hence why it’s taken me a few extra days to get it written and published. This post covers this ‘Facing the future’ session, which included talks from Steve West (University of the West of England), Darren Henley (Arts Council England), and Nike Jonah (Connecting Dots), and it was jam packed with really important points.
Steve West opened the session with some points that I agreed with, and some that I hope he was wrong about. Let me explain…
Points that I agreed with:
- The idea of simple checklist of things to think about when doing public engagement
- Potential of partnerships
- It is important that academics and public engagement professionals build meaningful networks that lead to long-standing partnerships with other organisations and individuals within the wider community (both local and global).
- Public engagement needs to be embedded into the culture of universities.
Points that I hope he was wrong about and why:
Steve explained that he thinks that we are heading for a change in the format of public engagement funding, and that funding specifically for engagement will be phased out over the coming years in favour of a model where engagement funds are built into other sources of funding (research grants for example). I really, really hope that this is not the case. I attended Engage as a researcher, and I was going there specifically to learn how to become a research that can more effectively engage with the stakeholders that surround my work. I learned a lot at Engage, and I think that’s because it’s a conference that’s designed as a place for public engagement experts to exchange ideas, learn from each other and discuss topics that might change the way they work in the future. Researchers need people that do public engagement to guide us, we need them to teach us what they know and help us to gain the skills needed to engage the public with our research. Engaging the public with our research is not the only thing that public engagement professionals do though; the scope of their talents is bigger than that, and in my opinion it’s important that we do what we can to ensure that engagement professionals are funded to do engagement – whether that’s with research or with the process and structures involved in university life more widely.
Next up was Darren Henley from the Arts Council England. Ignorantly, I didn’t think this talk would be for me – I assumed that Darren was going to talk about engagement with the type of projects that the Arts Council would fund – creative stuff that is in no way related to science. I’m happy to report I was absolutely wrong, and this was a fantastic talk that left me inspired and energised to infuse less obvious types of creativity into the science engagement that I do.
Darren encouraged us to think creatively, no matter what subject area we worked in. He explained that “a world without creativity would see no original ideas; no new inventions or advances in science or medicine; no new products or services; no new music or art; no solutions to new problems”. Whilst Darren’s talk was obviously from a perspective of someone who works in the creative industries (he’s current Chief Exec of the Arts Council, but he led Classical FM for 15 years and has a tonne of really impressive experience that is detailed in various books that have been published over the last 10 years), he did make a really good case for creativity in engagement more broadly.
I ordered his latest book, ‘Creativity: Why it Matters’ on my phone during his talk. I’m about a quarter of the way through it and so far I’m finding it fascinating – I think this will become a resource that I go back to year after year.
This session ended on a real high. My personal highlight of the entire conference was a talk by Nike Jonah from partnership enterprise Connecting Dots. Nike explained the idea of standpoint theory, which in very basic terms can encompassed by three overarching points:
- Knowledge is socially situated.
- Marginalised groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalised.
- Researcher, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalised.
The way she described standpoint theory encouraged the audience to work hard to see from the perspectives of others in society to ensure that engagement activities are open and accessible to all. She talked about making engagement events accessible for those with disabilities, those who don’t speak English fluently, and those that are visually or hearing impaired.
She was asked a question by an audience member about what we can do to increase diversity in the public engagement world bearing in mind that we were sat in a room full of mostly white middle class women. Nike’s response was brilliant. She made it clear that diversity does not just encompass race, or skin colour, or gender – it refers to a million different things that include all of the various characteristics and skills that we have. She gave examples of the languages that we know, the countries that we have visited, the musical instruments that we can play, and the hobbies that we have, making it clear that each of us is a product of our experiences and therefore the diversity in the room was likely much higher than you might think at first glance.
I went to speak (read: fangirl) to Nike after the conference and she was so wonderfully humble. I’m excited to do some more research into standpoint theory, and how I can embed accessibility into the engagement, and research, that I do over the coming years, and I’m really excited to see where Nike goes from here. She’s an incredibly intelligent person with a very clear set of morals that shine through all of the work that she does – definitely someone I can see myself learning from over the course of my career!