Single Yellow Lines from Charlie Harrison's Testing Situations project

The Only Way is Ethics

How did we end up bringing together 20 people to talk about ethics on a Wednesday afternoon?

It started with the UCL Public Engagement Network, a bi-termly meeting which exists to bring together UCL staff and students interested in public engagement. Topics are suggested and voted on by members – and one of the most popular suggested topics was ethics in public engagement.

Programming the session was an incredibly interesting experience. We realised fast that, while research ethical approval is often a first thought in this area, it is part of a broader question of how we do engagement responsibly and ethically. We also realised that while we could signpost some useful resources, we really needed to talk to our network members and hear from them what their needs and experiences were in doing ethical public engagement.

The session, eventually titled “Tackling ethical issues in public engagement” attracted a large audience of people from all over UCL and beyond. We began by hearing from two speakers who shared their own perspectives on ethical public engagement.

Charlotte Johnson, a senior research associate in urban resources and communities, spoke about participatory research, public engagement and ethics. She drew from her unique experience in both doing participatory research and in acting as Ethics Co-ordinator for UCL Energy Institute. Charlotte focused on the interdisciplinary nature of participatory and engaged research. She noted that some can see the ethics process as a constraint, but she understands it to be more of a prompt, a formal process that reminds you to ask the big questions, such as why are you asking the questions you are, who is included and excluded by your research approach, what are the implications and how can you ensure adequate involvement in your project as well as appropriate recognition of participants’ diverse contributions.

The next person to speak was Charlie Harrison, an artist whose practice has been involved in public engagement projects such as work looking into dementia and the forms of diagnosis with researchers and patients. He has experienced being the person who is being engaged with, by researchers. But he also works with potentially vulnerable groups, many of whose condition is not stable over time. His experiences in doing engagement ethically involve making sure that people are empowered and listened to , to take a full role in the engagement process, and being sure to consider the implications and appropriations possible when doing creative work within a research environment.

A visitor looking at Single Yellow Lines from Charlie Harrison’s Testing Situations project

After the speakers we opened discussion to the rest of the network to explore challenges, best practice and opportunities around key questions in this area.

One group discussed the “blurred line” between engagement and research, and asked when you can tell if you need formal ethical approval. They identified challenges in timing these applications, and being supported and understood when you do. An interesting point was raised about co-production of research – if the university does not “own” the research then who will be responsible for the ethics? Best practice in this area would be to be open, reflective and flexible – allowing time to set your values at the start and be open to issues that arise during the project, rather than just following a set program at the start of your project.

Another group discussed the wider question of ethical engagement, asking about the lived experience of doing engagement and how to ensure that all who take part are respected. Challenges identified included structures and motivations of research that disincentivise the behaviour that we’d like to see, such as making the time and space for the work of truly planning for and working with a diverse community with diverse needs. They felt that good practice would build on past experience and theory, would assume a long-term engagement and would be able to build on feedback.

Notes made during the discussion

Finally, the last group discussed whether a framework for ethical public engagement practices and behaviour would be possible. Challenges identified included pre-conceptions of ethics and the difficulty of getting buy-in. The different considerations required from place to place, subject to subject and project to project, could also mean that a framework is difficult to develop. Ideally a framework would be accessible, appropriate and universal, but also have an awareness of different values and practices across cultures, research areas and methodologies.

All three groups shared many factors in the future opportunities they identified. One piece of feedback that came back again and again was that now is the time to be having this conversation. Ethical public engagement can build trust, improve research and access to knowledge, and a framework could bring in people who are not thinking about ethics at the moment and encourage the sharing of best practice.

UCL’s Research Ethics is currently under review, so this is a useful moment to consider the relationship between Research Ethics and public engagement. We can also be more ethically aware in our own practice, allowing time for ethical consideration and consultation with participants and with ethics specialists in our funding and project timelines. In terms of a framework beyond the university, this is a larger conversation that needs all voices to be heard.

So, after this consultation, what are the next steps? Charlotte is still working across ethics and research. Charlie is writing a paper on social prescribing and ethics. And the UCL Engagement team will be looking into how we can support ongoing national and international conversations about ethics in public engagement going forward. Do drop us a line if you’d like to be involved in the conversation (publicenaggement@ucl.ac.uk) and sign up for future Network events at this link.