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Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement

By news editor, on 1 February 2012

The third annual Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement were held on 25 January. Ben Davies was there to applaud the winners.

Academia, it seems fair to say, can be a little inaccessible to those outside the loop. Accusations of academics operating with an ‘ivory tower’ mentality do seem increasingly unfair, but there is still an element of the mysterious about the whole endeavour; having studied Philosophy, one of the more mysterious subjects offered at university level, I know that a subject that fails to communicate will be seen as esoteric, perhaps even a waste of time.

This is not only a great shame when the truth is that academic research is of great relevance to the public, but is also damaging to universities themselves. More than ever, public engagement is vital to higher education.

The seriousness with which UCL treats its own public engagement, therefore, can only be a good thing. The awards ceremony was organised by the university’s Public Engagement Unit, which supports staff and students in communicating with the public in a constructive way, and whose staff were thanked by UCL President and Provost Malcolm Grant for “leading on public engagement for the institution as a whole”.

Professor Grant began by noting the extensive presence of public engagers in the room, a group which went far beyond this year’s winners, and asked us to “look around and ask ‘What are these people doing which opens up the excitement of their science or their scholarship to the world at large?’”

That was very much the theme of the evening: academics naturally find their work interesting and exciting; public engagement is about finding ways to transmit that enthusiasm beyond the traditional institutional lines.

There seemed, quite rightly, to be a great deal of pride surrounding the awards. Winners were whooped and cheered as they went to receive their prize from Professor Grant.

As head of the awards panel, Sophie Scott said of Steven Gray, one of the five winners, public engagement is about understanding the needs of people outside UCL, and shaping projects accordingly. The sheer range of work being recognised, from digital methods of museum engagement to a blog about global connectivity, showed that there are many paths from the university out into the world.

My own view is that keeping up with developments in technology is central to modern public engagement, and there were certainly several examples of that at the awards.

Professor Grant commented about moving away from the “conventional model” of academia to one that disseminates knowledge more widely, and that will surely achieve its fullest potential with the communicative power of technology.

So, congratulations to the winners of the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, who are detailed below. Hopefully, their work will inspire others to communicate their enthusiasm for their subjects to a wider audience, and academia can continue becoming less mysterious, while making its purposes more clear.

Winners of the Third Annual Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement:

Student: Claire Ross, Centre for Digital Humanities

Support staff: Karin Charles, Scandinavian Studies

Junior staff: Steven Gray, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis

Senior staff: Professor Clare Elwell, Medical Physics & Bioengineering

Department with strongest commitment to culture change: Science & Technology Studies, headed by Dr Joe Cain.

Ben Davies is an intern in UCL Communications & Marketing

Image: UCL President and Provost Professor Malcolm Grant presenting the award to Dr Joe Cain.

UCL news story

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