Easy to use cameras were given out to document wellbeing

Advocating Public Engagement: Can UCL be an instigator of change in the sector?

This is the second in our series of responses to the UCL Public Engagement Unit’s 10th birthday. This blog from Iwona Bisaga, a PhD student in the Centre for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, suggests that UCL needs to lead by example and advocate more widely across the Higher Education sector about the importance of public engagement.

Coming from a social science background, I like to think I have a higher appreciation for working with and for ‘the people’ than friends and colleagues from other disciplines might have. This is obviously a generalisation but, whether true or not, I have been driven in my choices and decisions according to what my work means for others (does it change anything? Does it make anything better for even just one person?) and how I can work towards achieving the goals of my work in collaboration with those who are ultimately impacted by it.

My PhD research is done in collaboration with an industry partner and that in itself means a lot because there is someone who is interested in what I find out pretty much by default. If it wasn’t for this kind of collaboration, I probably wouldn’t have decided to do a PhD.

man crouching, face obscured by camera

Iwona’s public engagement project involved asking the users of solar home system, who was researching, to take photographs

But what about everyone else, including those whose lives I have been researching (i.e. users of Solar Home Systems in Rwanda)? What do they get out of it? What voice do they have?

Well, for one, it is expected that my findings will help inform the work aimed at improving the products and services which those users receive. But, even though they are at the very centre of our collective work, their voice is passive: they respond to surveys, they participate in focus groups, they answer calls. But do they ever get to ask questions? Learn about what the product-service, provider-customer relationship is about? What the limitations and successes of the off-grid solar sector are?

I have received support both from the UCL Public Engagement Unit (PEU) and the UCL Global Engagement Office (GEO), with particularly the former assisting me to tackle that very challenge. To appreciate that those participating in the research should not only be informants but also recipients of it is, in my opinion, a huge achievement already, and UCL is far ahead of just that. There is an active effort to bring public engagement to the forefront of all of research activities across the university. There are various pockets of support, going beyond PEU and GEO. Citizen science has its own chapter now, one of very few (or perhaps the only one) in the UK! There is the encouragement to think along the lines of action research and its importance, the need for more involvement with research participants and various stakeholders who might be impacted or interested in what we’re trying to learn, to discover, to create. I’m impressed by how much public engagement is talked about across UCL, which translates into a rather widespread, shared appreciation of its significance in achieving true, meaningful research excellence.

woman and man on a sofa looking at a camera

Two participants in Iwona’s researching looking at the photographs they had taken

However, do others have the same level of appreciation? Does the wider academic community, beyond our Bloomsbury bubble, have the same understanding of what it means to do public engagement as part of academic research?

Sometimes I feel it is looked at as a novelty, an idiosyncrasy. Perhaps aspirational, but not really recognised as something that belongs to academic rigour, academic standards.

Where I would like UCL to go next is to become the external advocates of public engagement as vigorously as they have been its advocates internally. Ultimately, how is it going to matter what we do here if nobody else follows and respects our efforts? Just like research studies should not just produce something for the sake of consuming it but rather actively participating in it, so should other folk in the academic circles and beyond (here I talk about policymakers, practitioners, private sector actors etc.) should not just consume and observe from outside the yes- interesting, yes- useful, and yes- often different research efforts, but join in and collaborate, replicate, participate in them.

Being such a strong proponent of public engagement, UCL is in the best position to advocate it and make it into a standard of excellence along with those already set. And by UCL here I mean all those who are doing public engagement on a daily basis, who have adopted the mantra and who are credible examples of it. There are partners out there who I’m sure are going to willingly help, who are also part of the movement. If it isn’t happening yet, then maybe it can start happening soon?

For her PhD, Iwona Bisaga is looking at the behaviour of users of the Solar Home System BBOXX in rural Rwanda. She was funded through the UCL Public Engagement Unit Beacon Bursary scheme for a participatory photography project. You can read more about her research and engagement on Iwona’s website.