There is nothing unusual about academics and amateurs sharing and discussing their interests in learning. Professional and amateur stargazers debate the night sky, volunteers dig alongside archaeologists, biographers need readers and museums thrive with interactive exhibits.
Applied research such as medicine, communications or agriculture, elicits opinions about the focus, ethics and governance of research from people interested in the potential benefits and harms of new technologies or ways of working. All this is public engagement with research – where non-researchers are either contributing to the research, or debating or making use of the findings. Citizen science, engaged scholarship, patient involvement, public participation, practitioner research and many other terms describe activities which have overlapping principles and methods.
Sharing lessons between the disciplines and across policy sectors is difficult because we do not have a common language or shared understanding of what public engagement comprises and how it operates.
In the UK universities are supported by Research Councils UK and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement to encourage a growing culture of public engagement with research – by developing the “the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public”. This engagement is taken to be “a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit”.
Staff at the Institute of Education have been part of this social movement. Universities across the UK and internationally have been opening up their ‘ivory towers’ and finding new ways to work with other people in organisations and networks where knowledge is valued for culture and for policy decisions.
For instance, university students who grew up in local authority care played a prominent role as workshop leaders and spoke movingly about their own challenging experiences at a conference reporting a study of them and 150 of their peers. Ultimately, the By Degrees study (pdf) led to the introduction of a bursary for care leavers who go on to higher education and encouraged many UK universities and local authorities to improve the support they offer care leavers.
On a lighter note, pupils and teachers were involved in pilot testing software (pdf) that would allow young people to make 3D adventure and puzzle games that are as satisfying to play as the ones they buy. Developing a common language was important for cross-disciplinary and cross-generational understanding of game design, and a new quality, commercial product.
Elsewhere, public debate about nanotechnologies (engineering on a molecular scale) illustrated how public engagement can: reveal public concerns and wishes; suggest new lines of enquiry; open science to public scrutiny; provoke reflection on the wider, social implications of scientific developments; and help scientists and the public develop new skills and mutual appreciation.
Ironically, despite holding similar principles, academics who are applying them in various areas for different purposes are often working in isolation, unaware that other enthusiasts are down the corridor or in neighbouring universities. Now, discussions between the eight universities with RCUK public engagement ‘catalyst’ funding, and the NCCPE, have inspired plans for an international journal for academics and others interested in research.
This journal, to be launched by IOE Press, will focus on the role of academic research in society at large, and the role of society at large in academic research. It will publish empirical research and critical analyses of public engagement with research across all academic disciplines; opinion pieces from public perspectives and engagement intermediaries; and reviews of books and events. It is a forum for sharing the learning from research and practice that crosses boundaries between research and the wider world, across academic disciplines and policy sectors.
The journal will consider the questions academics ask about how to choose between different publics and different methods depending on the context of their research projects, and the consequent impact on the research and those involved. It will consider the questions asked by outsiders wishing to engage academics in research – how to read research, news or commentaries with a critical eye, navigate university structures, and inspire academics with new agendas. Lastly, it will consider the systems and cultures that support or block academics and the public learning from each other.
Typical of this area – where choice of language reveals assumptions, cliques and fashions – an appropriate name for such a journal remains elusive. The vision is to bring together the wisdom of academics, practitioners, Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) Ambassadors and all manner of engaged publics. Their task will be to shape a ground-breaking journal – and find a name.