Public Engagement and Impact in Research – what’s it all about?

I recently attended a lecture (conference)* on Public Engagement. I had always been aware of what Public Engagement was from working at Life Science Centre in Newcastle, and being present at various Science Festivals that they had hosted in the five years I worked there. Although I was not in the public engagement side, everyone’s job included some form of public engagement, from drawing the visitors in to ensuring their day was engaging and fun.

Anyway, when the opportunity arose, I decided to attend a conference aiming to raise awareness of public engagement in Edinburgh Napier and also exploring some of the reasons behind pushing public engagement within research. I was not really sure what the event was, but the organiser, Bill, suggested going along to get some more information on the whole thing… so I did.

From attending I did learn a lot. Firstly, public engagement doesn’t necessarily mean telling people about your research. It means getting people involved, allowing them to see what the real-life implications are and how it can affect them. So as an example, a researcher may be in the investigatory stages of planning their research and may feel they would like to get others involved. They may publicise the ideas behind the research and demonstrate how this could be used by the general public. They may attend lectures, conferences and seminars, but most importantly, they need to try and reach out to the people who really matter – the target audience.

Understandably, in the first few weeks of my research, this is not something that I was immediately thinking about. However, when developing the uniqueness of the research and finalising the research questions this is definitely something that I will need to factor in. So, who would benefit from my research (employers, organisations, support agencies, individuals for example)? Why is the research individual or why does it differ from other research carried? More importantly, how does it have impact?

I found out yesterday that a lot of things can rest on impact, one main thing can be funding. If a piece of research is going to benefit someone then the support from others may likely increase, whether that be financial or non-financial. This can be of particular important when in competition for funding, specifically if research is funded by one of the Research Councils in the UK. For me, my research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) so I know my research needs to have impact and I know that I need to understand what impact means in terms who the research may benefit when engaging with these people. When searching on the ESRC website, I came along this handy section that explains all of this, so if your research is funded, or potentially funded by the ESRC, this is something to consider and you may want to take a look.

I also learned the importance of public engagement and impact when it comes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Every few years, an assessment of the quality of research within higher education institutions of carried out, with the next one being in 2020. This is the REF.  As explained yesterday, REF 2020 will be making assessments based on impact and aspects of public engagement, so any research submitted for REF needs to have its impact highlighted to help support the department and university in achieving the best results possible. The assessors will be focusing a lot more on how public engagement can be involved and also the impact of the research itself, not surprisingly, both may potentially be linked in terms of getting the research out there and exploring how it can be used.

For me, the event gave me some things to consider. Firstly, how can I engage the audience with my research when presenting at future conferences? This is something for me to work on in the coming months if I want to present my work well and ensure that my points are heard and remembered. Secondly, is there anything else I could be doing to help me prepare for this and if there is, why am I not doing it? Finally, how can I demonstrate the impact of my research and ensure that it has enough impact to make it unique?

During the research I will be able to answer these as I go along, but for now, it’s good to keep these in mind as engagement with and impact of research are important aspects and should be highlighted throughout.

*Edinburgh Napier Public Engagement Conference held at Edinburgh Napier Merchiston Campus on 26th October 2015. Presented by Professor Bill Buchanan (Professor in the I School of Computing, Edinburgh Napier University).

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