Research impact – public engagement is key

Britain’s research councils have just published their much awaited concordat for engaging the general public with the academic world. Supported by a whole host of worthy bodies, the concordat outlines the “expectations and responsibilities” of senior managers through to contract researchers, postgraduate students and other toilers at the wheel of academe.

RCUK have published a quite extraordinary document, and I – a somewhat weary cynic who, when it comes to academic life and science public outreach has been there, done that, got the t-shirt and a failed academic career with it – am moderately impressed. Let us hope that the fine words can be translated into concrete action, and the proposals outlined are not smothered by the even more cynical souls who inhabit our ivory towers.

In brief, the concordat contains four key principles…

  • UK research organisations have a strategic commitment to public engagement.
  • Researchers are recognised and valued for their involvement with public engagement activities.
  • Researchers are enabled to participate in public engagement activities through appropriate training, support and opportunities.
  • The signatories and supporters will undertake regular reviews of their and the wider research sector’s progress in fostering public engagement across the UK.

On their own these four statements of intent are light in content, and similar words have been uttered in the past by policymakers, university vice chancellors and department heads. What is interesting is how the principles are fleshed out in the briefing documents aimed at managers, funders and researchers themselves.

The focus of the concordat is very much on the “expectations and responsibilities” highlighted above, and there are some substantial ideas put forward for policy implementation. I am also pleased to see that the concordat acknowledges where previous public engagement strategies have failed. Take, for example, the following statements…

“If people feel that their career prospects are not improved (or even sometimes jeopardised) by engaging with the public then many of them will choose not to.”

“This Concordat complements the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It does this through ensuring that public engagement is recognised and valued by the sector; that researchers are equipped and supported to undertake public engagement; and that they share responsibility for developing the skills required for their own personal and career development and lifelong learning.”

What still isn’t addressed, however, are the intense time pressures on academics and contract research staff, most of whom work far in excess of their contracted hours. To forge a successful academic career requires regular and frequent publication in peer-reviewed journals, together with the continual drafting of research grant applications, and fulfilling the reporting responsibilities associated with existing grants.

This is why some researchers resent having further responsibilities forced on them in the form of public engagement and outreach. One can argue that engaging with the wider world will help them in the long run, but tell that to someone suffering from work-related reactive depression, or even hovering forever on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Still, if the government and those who run our research infrastructure are wise to the issues on the ground, there is hope that a way forward can be found.