By Victoria Pearson, Head of Corporate Communications, University of Reading (at the time of writing Victoria was Senior Communications Planning Manager, University of Oxford
Whatever you think of the Research Excellent Framework (REF), you can’t deny it has sharpened our focus on impact. And while there may be as many pathways to impact as there are research projects, one that has gained in profile amongst higher education institutions (and funders) in recent years is the concept of public engagement with research.
The line between communications and public engagement can be a hazy one, and open to debate and (mis)interpretation. For a start, the definitions of ‘public engagement with research’ are as multitudinous as the pathways to impact. Ask one person and it’s best understood as a spectrum, another will describe it as a circle and still others quite like a triangle. It’s enough to give you flashbacks to GSCE geometry and that’s somewhere I’m not keen to return. (Full disclosure: I’m an aficionado of the spectrum analogy, which perhaps betrays the linear thinking of my legal background.)
‘It’s about engaging the public’
Perhaps we can all agree, though, that the value of engaging the public with research goes well beyond your next REF case study. At the heart of every definition, and mangled shape metaphor, is the concept of dialogue. Perhaps it’s actually as simple as it says on the tin – it’s about engaging the public (or publics to use that rather ugly but irritatingly useful word) with research. We’re not just telling them about it – we’re inviting them to share, debate, challenge, participate and co-create. So in addition to informing (and even inspiring), we should also consult and excite.
‘We get stuck in broadcast mode. We tell rather than talk’
Sadly, when it comes to communications, we often get stuck in broadcast mode. We tell rather than talk. In that form, communications can help to share the results of research with the world, but is it true engagement? Well, to the extent that making people aware of research is a necessary precursor to engaging them, then the answer is yes. But only a partial yes, because broadcasting is only a partial understanding of communications.
If we are communicating properly, we are engaging in dialogue. And many of the communications tools that we have at our disposal are perfect for facilitating that conversation. This is particularly true in the digital world – web and social media work best as communications tools when the invite others to participate.
My recent experience leading the communications and marketing for the University of Oxford’s largest ever public engagement with research event, the Curiosity Carnival, showed just how much people want to engage with research and researchers if they are given the chance. A Facebook Live event with Oxford evolutionary anthropologist Dr Anna Machin (of Married at First Sight fame, pictured left) on the nature of love amassed a whopping 30,000 views and the comments demonstrate just how engaged people were with the ideas behind her research.
Online platforms like Zooniverse.org also show how digital technology can actually involve the public in the research itself – the benefits and not just the conversation are two-way. Zooniverse helps facilitate the kind of research that would not be possible by a lone researcher or even research team. Without background or training, people can help with projects as diverse as watching solar storms, spotting elephants and counting cells in modern and fossil leaves. It is work that allows non-researchers to genuinely contribute to the sum of human knowledge. It’s hard not to get excited about that.
Clearly, engaging the public with research can go well beyond the realms of communication but it is clear that as communicators we should work closely with our public engagement colleagues to make sure the communications tools that we use daily can be harnessed to further these lofty goals. And who knows? It might even help with a REF case study.