**I moved this entry from a previous blog that I attempted to develop**
On Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011, I attended a meeting on ‘public engagement’ in my Department (I will not explicitly state the Department or the University; looking around this website will give you that information). The email encouraging staff to attend the meeting was circulated substantially in advance and notitifcations were sent as the date approached nearer.
The purpose of the meeting was to get an overview of the outreach and public engagement ongoing in the Department (hence, not strictly limited to science research), whether inherently part of your research or as a sideline, and to discuss how the Department may move forward in this area. There were presentations from the University’s volunteering and staff outreach team as well as from Beacon NE. This was followed by a discussion guided by the following topics:
* Why public engagement is important, University strategy and University support available
* Overview of ongoing or planned outreach/public engagement in the Department
* How we can collate, better communicate and potentially publicise our outreach/public engagement – for public use/University use/Department use
* Plans for the future (potential points to cover: future Department engagement activities, outreach officer, outreach support etc) and possible funding sources
As one of the first presenters pointed out, these types of meetings are going on all over the UK in various Departments across a number of Universities. It would be very interesting to see the turnout at these meetings. At the meeting in question, the turnout was probably somewhere around 20-25. Obviously, there are commitments to attend to and other obligations associated with the academic trade which can in part explain the numbers. However, I suspect the other part of the explanation can be attributed to regarding ‘public engagement’ as something that’s not applicable to the researcher’s academic career.
During the meeting, I noticed several themes that reappeared throughout the discussion:
– What is public engagement?
There are no clear definitions or criteria about what exactly is ‘public engagement’. It is embodied through many activities. The list of projects within the department that had some type of ‘public engagement’ was fairly extensive . However, establishment of criteria of what is ‘public engagement’ was echoed as a first step forward. This was proposed to be accomplished through establishment of a ‘narrative’ of ‘public engagement’ activities within the department.
– Department vs University
There appears to be this competitive dichotomy between the departments and the university itself. The department and the university seem to exist as two separate entities that do not necessarily share a common synergy. This was reflected in the discussion points about the need to gather a complete set of information about the activities occurring within the department and becoming fully aware of potentially doing similar initiatives that were already being carried out by the university. This dynamic is further reflected in consideration of whether the department should undertake individual support for its researchers in public engagement or simply allow the researchers to engage with the already established university initiatives.
It all comes down to the finances. There are research strategies in place that correspond to specific budgets. Similarly, there are teaching strategies in place that correspond to specific budgets. In contrast, there are no specific strategies for engagement; the manifesto for public engagement is a step in the right direction. Thus, there are no budgets that correspond to ‘public engagement’ at departmental levels (at least in this department). Therefore, for now, the ‘public engagement’ must remain at the will of the individual researcher since collective efforts require financial backing.
The aforementioned factors are not necessarily supportive of development in ‘public engagement’ initiatives amongst the departments in the universities. Thus, the onus would appear to remain mainly on the individual researchers. According to the PVC of Engagement, it is all about networks amongst colleagues in universities and the public. These networks are supposed to sustain the development of ‘public engagement’. This is opposed to using a type of a centralised approach towards developing ‘public engagement’. The PVC suggested that a tipping point will be reached. Will it?