VA study visit: public engagement in the UK

In February 2020, colleagues from Vetenskap & Allmänhet, VA (Public & Science) visited four organisations in the UK to learn more about their work and how they are supporting public engagement practices.

The visit was funded partly by a travel awards scheme for partners run by the Horizon 2020 SciShops project. Accompanying Maria Hagardt and Helen Garrison from VA was also Anna Maria Fleetwood from the Swedish Research Council.

University College London

Despite an extremely bumpy landing at Heathrow airport thanks to Storm Ciara, the first stop on the trip was UCL (University College London), where they were hosted by Anne Laybourne, Community Research Manager for CRIS, a Science Shop based within the university. Here the group learnt about the way CRIS operates, matchmaking Masters students with local charities and community organisations to conduct research for their dissertations. Running since November 2018, CRIS is based within the Students’ Union allowing it to work in a cross-disciplinary way and benefit from existing community relationships held by the university’s Volunteering Service.  They also learnt about the development of a community-based research training course called “Find your voice”. This course for Masters students is about to be piloted for CRIS students exploring what is engaged research and collaboration, as well as audience identification and practical communication skills.

Maria Hagardt, VA (Public & Science) with Anne Laybourne, Community Research Manager at UCL

They also met with staff from UCL’s Public Engagement Unit to learn more about how public engagement is supported across the university, as well as the development of a new UCL EAST campus in Stratford, which will have a strong focus on fostering public collaboration in research to benefit the local community. The PE Unit, which was set up in 2008, consists of 15 people split into four teams, each of which support different faculties across the university, and provides advice and support to students and staff on planning, conducting and evaluating public engagement.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

The second stop was POST – the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, to meet the Head of POST Grant Hill-Cawthorne. A non-party political science advisory service, POST supports parliamentarians in their decision-making by keeping them informed about current and emerging science and technology issues and their policy implications. Running for 30 years, its work includes the highly regarded “POSTnotes” (four page research briefs on emerging topics), POST briefs (in-depth analyses of complex research), POST fellowship schemes, seminars and other events.  It also undertakes annual horizon scanning to identify scientific developments that Parliament should be aware of in the coming years. In 2018, a Knowledge Exchange Unit was also set up to facilitate knowledge exchange between UK Parliament and research communities. The unit provides training, support and advice for researchers and parliamentarians across the UK and acts as a central contact point at the UK Parliament for the research community.

Wellcome Trust

The team also visited the Wellcome Trust, an independent foundation that provides funding for scientific research on health challenges. Here they met Chloe Sheppard, Research and Engagement Relationships Manager, and Sarah Paine, Funding & Activities Advisor who both work in the Public Engagement team. The Wellcome Trust’s current public engagement strategy involves a shift towards an outcomes-led approach, focusing on people-centred health research, ensuring work is valued and trusted, and generating evidence to underpin their work and demonstrate impact. 

One of the Public Engagement team’s key target groups are Connectors, organisations that provide a bridge between the public and research and include civil society, design-based disciplines, media and communications, patient groups, and frontline services. By supporting partnerships with “connectors”, the Wellcome Trust is exploring new and innovative ways of involving people in their local context in research – i.e. place based public engagement. For example, in a project called Night Club, leading sleep researchers, shift work employers and a design agency have been collaborating to help shift workers reduce the impact of the night-shift on their health, based on sleep research.

In January 2020, the Wellcome Trust also published the results of a large survey to investigate  What researchers think about the culture they work in. Involving 4,000 researchers in the UK and globally, and around 100 in-depth interviews, the results have been causing lots of debate in the UK research community after highlighting concerns about job security, a poor research culture and a focus on metrics and quantity rather than research quality.

National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement

Following an evening train to Bristol, the study trip continued on the following day at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, NCCPE, in Bristol, where time was spent time with Paul Manners, Director of Policy, and Sophie Duncan, Director of Business and Strategy. 

With a national remit, NCCPE works across the UK to support excellent public engagement practice, helping to create the conditions for public engagement to thrive in universities and building strong networks and partnerships with the surrounding community to amplify their impact.

Helen Garrison and Maria Hagardt, VA (Public & Science), Sweden meeting Sophie Duncan and Paul Manners, Directors of the NCCPE, UK

NCCPE has been running for 12 years and now has seven members of staff. It receives around 40% of its funding from UK Research and Innovation, the devolved Higher Education funding bodies, and the Wellcome Trust, with the rest generated through its various training offerings and from project grants.

In addition to hearing about how the organisation operates, we also learnt about some of their many activities, including The Engage Academy (a year long professional development programme for public engagement professionals); the Public Engagement Professionals Network (a national membership network); and the Engage Watermark (an award granted to higher education institutions to recognise their strategic support for public engagement). NCCPE also runs the open access journal Research for All and the annual Engage conference for those interested in public engagement in higher education.

Of particular relevance to the SciShops project, are NCCPE initiatives to encourage collaboration between community organisations and universities. These include Wonder Match that consists of a series of partnership-building events designed to bring community organisations and researchers together to explore new projects and encourage diverse audiences to engage with science. In addition, the Community-University Partner Initiative has also supported regional networking events for community organisations and university researchers and provided  ‘thinking funding’ to 28 partnerships. NCCPE has also developed a number of useful tools to support partnership building, which can be downloaded from their website. 

Policy-wise, there is a growing focus in the UK on place-based engagement in order to address inequality and regional disparities in how research and innovation funding is distributed. In 2019, NCCPE undertook a review for UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) (national funding agency) of how university research, innovation and engagement might be better aligned to the needs of areas of the UK experiencing inequality. Linked to this is the civic role of universities and how to strengthen the connection between universities and their places, with NCCPE highlighting a report by the UPP Foundation (university partnerships programme) encouraging universities to embrace their civic role

“The visits were extremely useful providing us with better knowledge of how public engagement is being supported and embedded strategically in universities in the UK and ways of working that will inform VA’s own work and future development,” commented Maria Hagardt. “We have already started discussing future collaborations too, for example, to engage CRIS in our future work on Science Shops, as well as ways to involve Swedish participants in some of NCCPE’s activities,” added Helen Garrison.


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