INGRAINED: putting public engagement at the heart of research

INGRAINED: putting public engagement at the heart of research

This blog has been written by Dr. Gemma Moore, Head of Evaluation in UCL Culture together with Marina Chang from the Calthorpe Project.


This month UCL launched its new Research Strategy; providing a vision for UCL’s research over the next ten years. I am delighted to say that public engagement features heavily in the Strategy, and is recognised as a vital instrument to achieve UCL’s ambitions.

“The new UCL Research Strategy commits to crossing boundaries to increase engagement as one of our three aims. Public engagement is a crucial part of how we will achieve this and another of our aims, to deliver impact for public benefit. Our implementation of the Research Strategy will now focus on the concrete actions we need to take to further embed, strengthen and learn from public engagement with research across UCL.”

– Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research)

The Research Strategy, and the role of public engagement in it, was directly informed by the emerging insights from the INGRAINED project. INGRAINED, which ran from October 2017-October 2018, was a project funded under the RCUK/UKRI Strategic Support to Expedite Embedding Public Engagement with Research call.Working with colleagues in the Office of the Vice Provost Research (OVPR) and the Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) we explored 3 key areas:

  • how community involvement could be built into the infrastructure and governance for the UCL Grand Challenges programme and UCL’s research strategy more broadly
  • how to make the outputs and outcomes of UCL research, and ongoing research activity, relevant and accessible to local communities;
  • developing greater evidence and knowledge of how research agendas can be informed by local communities and different stakeholders.

But what does that all really mean? INGRAINED was a unique opportunity to bring together the Public Engagement Unit, the Grand Challenges programme, and primary research to examine how we can make public engagement fundamental to the university’s efforts to address global societal issues through cross-disciplinary research. We ran a programme of activity that included focus groups, interviews, a match-making event between community organisations and researchers, funding pilot public engagement projects led by community organisations, and reflecting upon our working practice and strategic ambitions.

Influencing strategy is a must – and is not always easy – but it is not an end in itself. This project crystallised for us what we already suspected; that a meaningful response to this challenge and opportunity requires a willingness to commit to institutional and system-wide transformation rather than just a tweaking of existing systems and structures. This requires committed action within and beyond individual universities. Universities are increasingly being asked and expected to respond to both global and local contexts and societal priorities – and there is evidence that the sector as a whole has a strong commitment and desire to respond in a meaningful way. For other HEIs looking to undertake projects similar to INGRAINED we recommend that there is commitment at the most senior level and only by a team which encompasses key actors drawn from those who lead on global and local engagement from both a professional services and academic perspective.

For us a key achievement is that this project’s findings have been fed directly into UCL’s revised research strategy, and can be seen reflected in several key objectives:

  • Extend the reach of UCL Grand Challenges through a greater emphasis on external engagement, including community stakeholders.
  • Encourage our research to thrive beyond traditional boundaries, which includes commitments to “support engagement with different communities” and to “cross boundaries between varied forms of social engagement”, including drawing from the UCL community’s specialist skills and expertise in engaging with civil society and the public.
  • Foster open and engaged research.
  • Stimulate societal impact through cross-disciplinarity and collaboration, including commitments to “foster public collaboration in research to benefit communities”, and “benefit London and our local community”.

Our learning from INGRAINED will inform how we take these objectives forward. However, INGRAINED amplified a key issue: how to identify and optimise the benefits of linking the global to the local in a strategic and sustained fashion and what this might look like in practice. The Engagement Team are currently developing a vision and targets for public engagement at UCL, over the next 10 year, part of which draws on the learning from INGRAINED about the role of university in society and how we can act to explore global issues in local contexts.

Next we hear from someone involved in the pilot project: Marina Chang, Co-Chair of the Calthorpe Project.

This is not a story about a project, this is not a story about a strategy, this is not a story about INGRAINED. Instead, this is a story about partnership and friendship between the Calthorpe Project and UCL. I am going to talk about who we are and how what we deliver as an organisation has been shaped by our involvement with UCL. (INGRAINED, although a short project, allowed us to cement existing and build new relationships with UCL.)
The Calthorpe Project is an inner-city community garden and centre that exists to improve the physical and emotional well-being of those who live, work or study in Camden and surrounding areas. We have rich skills and experience, passion and personality – and this has been fundamental to our approach to partnership working. We have been keen to develop a genuine collaborative approach to working with UCL and therefore have been actively involved in the entire cycle of the public engagement projects funded through INGRAINED. This has included identification of local needs; working on grant applications; designing and implementing the projects; evaluation; and wider dissemination to generate London-wide impact and beyond. Calthorpe strives to be good neighbour to UCL and vividly believes in a vision that the community is part of the university and vice versa. Part of our ethos is a commitment to supporting any experiments and innovation to create a learning community.
Working with both the existing and the newly-formed intensive networks at UCL as a result of INGRAINED, Calthorpe has encouraged and supported community participation to integrate research, education, transformative technologies, social enterprise and public policy into a coherent whole.
INGRAINED allowed us to run a series of workshops with artists from the Slade. This project was part of a wider programme: contributing to the Calthorpe Living Lab. Calthorpe Living Lab marks another important milestone for the collaborative and creative journey together between The Calthorpe Project and UCL. As a small scale, community-based, project, Calthorpe Living Lap is both a community garden and a vehicle to undertake user-led innovation: bringing together its users with other external partners such as UCL it tests out innovative approaches in a real-life environment. Built upon previous public engagement projects, The Lab combines micro-anaerobic digestion with on-site food growing using raised beds, polytunnels, and hydroponics. Food waste from the on-site community café is digested to produce biogas (used for cooking and extending the growing season) while the liquid fertiliser by-product supports plant growth in the garden. Food harvested then supplies the café: this circular approach is what is known as a ‘closed-loop system’.

circular plastic machine using hydroponics to grow plants and vegetables

Plant Orbital: a machine using hydroponics to grow vegetables. photo credit to The Calthorpe Project

child looks at plant orbital: a clear plastic circular machine using hyroponics to grow plants and vegetables

Local people explore the plant orbital as UCL researcher explains how it works

Collaborating with UCL has challenged our thinking: pioneering a way to approach issues regarding food systems, urban systems and health systems from a more holistic and integrated way, and has allowed us to experiment and learn. The Calthorpe Living Lab uses food as a focal point for UCL researchers and students as well as wider publics bringing multiple benefits. We are looking forward to our next chapter working with UCL, and seeing what it bringss.