Sophie Duncan, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Photo by Ben Littlefield

Revolution is in the air, but not from where you might expect.

This blog has been written by Ben Littlefield, Public Engagement Manager for the School of the Built Environment, Engineering and Mathematical and Physical Sciences (BEAMS).


The UCL Engagement team are freshly returned from Bristol and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) yearly conference; Engage 2019. This year academics, public engagement professionals, communicators and community advocates all descended on the Marriott Hotel to disrupt (the conferences’ theme), share and learn. As it was my first time at Engage I wasn’t sure what to expect and so wasn’t prepared for the intense personal nature of the stories and ideas shared.

Honesty, shared challenges and a community on a mission were the key narratives interwoven throughout every conference session. Sophie Duncan (NCCPE) chaired the welcoming plenary on ‘Stories of Disruption and Hope’ with real passion and personal energy. Witnesses from the public engagement community were called upon to share brief insights into their personal journeys and challenges, emotion-laden voices calling for ‘knowledge exchange not transfer’ and the dangers of public engagement committees just ‘talking shop’. After these honest and unexpected sharings, Sophie closed the session with a question: ‘Change is slow, but does it have to be slow?’

Photo of Sophie Duncan, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement opening the Engage Conference.

Sophie Duncan, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement. Photo by Ben Littlefield.

This idea of evolution vs revolution carried on into the sessions of the day. Over the past 10 years the public engagement landscape has changed, but not changed enough. We are encountering cultural barriers, not just with the people we would like to work with, but internally, as institutions and our funders. Questions such as ‘How do we value public engagement alongside research?’ and ‘Where does public engagement fit in the model of the civic university’ were constantly on lips and discussed over the rich wafts of coffee and chocolate-chip cookies in generous networking breaks.

The first session I attended was ‘Looking for Impact in all the wrong places’ which sought to highlight the challenge of measuring and evidencing impact from public engagement. Sarah McLusky of Durham University challenged us to look beyond the impact on targeted communities (which is nearly impossible to measure) and instead focus on our partners and volunteers. In the space we operate it is just as interesting (and potentially easier) to measure the impact on a researcher over time than try and keep in touch with a specific community group who may have interacted with you once – ‘One interaction doesn’t change our worldview’. Citing Derren Brown ‘Don’t base your worth on things beyond your control’, Sarah challenged us to explore areas of projects where there could have been unexpected changes on volunteers, researchers and PIs.

The unexpected was strongly in evidence at the second session of the day, the ‘Research Revolution’.

Lesley Paterson, Oxford University leading a 'research revolution' session.

Lesley Paterson, Oxford University leading a ‘research revolution’ session. Photo by Ben Littlefield.

Led by Lesley Paterson (Oxford University) this lively session started with role play (the nature paper, the exhausted PhD Student, the PI) and highlighted the challenges that the research landscape faces in becoming truly engaged.

Dominic Galliano (role playing as Primary Investigator, UCL

Dominic Galliano (role playing as Primary Investigator, UCL. Photo by Ben Littlefield

We were challenged to write our own ‘Manifesto for Change’ (see below) which will be combined into one larger manifesto that will be used as a rallying cry to change the culture of research. As a table we focused on the mental health of researchers, the power imbalance between funders and institutions and the systems which limit researchers. From a public engagement perspective, these things and much much more limit how engaged a researcher can be, if the pressure is to publish X number of papers a year, then they won’t have time/energy/capacity to work with people who could mutually benefit from exploring their research.

Photo of the manifesto for change created by a table in the research revolution session.

Our table’s manifesto for change. Photo by Ben Littlefield.

Day one ended on a phenomenal plenary with an inspiring and moving contribution from Julia Unwin (Chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society). Julia spoke of the enduring purpose of Universities in connecting people. The need for us to be an active part of a civil society, ‘what is going on isn’t good enough, things have to change’ and our roles as ‘anchor institutions with no choice of location’. We should ‘align your purpose, your image, your history in that place’ to build community wealth and when entering into relationships ‘go in with humility, <sharing> the assets that you have’. One moment that particularly resonated with me was a strong statement about moving away from the deficit model, so often still practiced in science communication: ‘You can’t just swoop in, it’s not legitimate, it’s not nice… You, the University are not the cleverest, you have a lot to learn from others in the room.’ Julia ended with a statement on the importance of clarity and transparency, echoing the narrative of honesty throughout the conference ‘Uncertainty makes people scared, scared people hold on to the power they have’.

The concept of place and the ‘Civic University’ carried on as a theme into the second day, with the opening plenary re-iterating that ‘no University is an island, we are part of really complex and evolving ecosystems’. This was counterbalanced by a caution against the concept of place-based engagement becoming a ‘spray on brand’ (a bit of a buzz phrase of the conference, think ‘in-vogue’ or squeezing your practice to align with the latest fashion). With repeated questions about ‘How do we work together’ to build trust and respect and ensuring engagement and place are embedded and throughout research and education.

The campaign feel of the conference was still a strong narrative in day two, but the discussions and shared concepts started to lose their energy, and the sessions of the day felt more like going over established ground than practical action that attendees could take away. The ‘Evidencing Engagement’ session ran by the NCCPE looked into the credibility of data presentation for different audiences, the attendees were invited to inhabit different roles (our table were ‘external partners’) and critique a REF (Research Excellent Framework) case study, a Nesta report and a video case study. We were encouraged to explore the following four questions:

  • How credible is the evidence?
  • What works for you (in the role we were assuming) and what doesn’t?
  • In order for it to be credible, what else do you want to have?
  • How could it be presented more effectively?

This session helped us to reflect on how we present our evidence and tailor it for specific audiences to make a more powerful, relevant narrative. This and the following session I attended ‘Is this just PE(R) or is this just fantasy’ were great for reflection but didn’t provide much meaningful activity for participants to take back to their organisations. ‘Is this just…’ challenged us to consider statements such as ‘we’ve developed a jargon-filled language around public engagement, our own bubble’ which is ironic and very true! Increasingly I’m discovering that the beginning of my meetings with outside of PE is spent developing a shared language and understanding of public engagement before getting to how I can actually help them. Are we, as supporters, enablers and practitioners, developing our own Ivory Tower when our very existence is to break down barriers? On the other hand, the same session raised the challenge that we have a ‘responsibility to professionalise the field’ to ‘raise the profile of ourselves’ in our institutions that may go some way to start the Revolution in valuing public engagement. Can we do that without being protective of the power we gain?

Finally the conference closed with reflections from several senior members of staff in the field of public engagement, one was Kimberly Freeman’s  (Queen Mary University London) call to action to ‘stop hiding’ to ‘focus on the people in public engagement’ as ‘the roles aren’t always correct, expectations are often not right’. Ultimately we need to ‘support each other and look after <our>selves, I (Kimberly) don’t want to be part of a sector that uses people because they care’.

I left Bristol (with my secretly stashed conference cookies) inspired, challenged and hungry for more. On one hand I met incredible people who are wrestling with the same challenges I’m facing, felt like I was part of something bigger, with people who understand that the problem is bigger than one person, than one institution even. But I also felt not completely satisfied, I didn’t feel like I’d developed or learnt new tools or processes to support the change that is needed, to better help people embed two-way engagement in their research. At least I know I am not alone.

A revolution is needed. Will it waft, hot and bloated, through grey corridors? Or will it blow open doors and bring vibrant change on the wind?