First guest post in a series of three by Dr Graham McElearney, Senior Learning Technologist, Technology Enhanced Learning Team in CiCS.

At Sheffield, the importance of public engagement is recognised as one of our key strategic objectives. It is also fundamental to our core values as an institution. The University was founded by the people of Sheffield, who understood the importance that a University would have for the city.  These principles are at the heart of our purpose today – we are a values led University with a global mission to make the world a better place through research and teaching. 

Researchers at Sheffield tackle some of the most important and pressing issues facing the whole of humanity. Some of them are the most obvious problems, such as food security, energy, and tackling diseases such as cancer and Motor Neurone Disease – problems we are fighting with our amazing prowess in science, engineering and medicine. But they are also in other critical social and political areas that are facing us all, such our great work supporting refugees, and on a local level, in understanding the rich social and political heritage of our fine city through its famous citizens, such as James Montgomery.

“Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.”

Whatever your subject, or whatever level you are at with your research, there can be little doubt that public engagement is of increasing priority.  There is a groundswell of colleagues across our University for whom public duty is a key motivation for wanting to share their work. And it’s not just us that thinks so. The above quote was made by Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, warning about the importance of getting the wider public to understand that issues such as climate change are real, and these are everyone’s responsibility to tackle.

So why get involved in Public Engagement?
Firstly there are now a series of policy drivers that are pushing the importance of public engagement for researchers. For example, the Research Councils UK (RCUK) now have a Concordat that they expect Institutions and individual researchers to conform and commit to. Those undertaking research funded by RCUK need to be able to demonstrate an engagement strategy as a key deliverable of their research. Another key area, related to RCUK requirements, are those around the impact agenda. In addition to the “pathways to impact” statements required by RCUK for research projects, the Research Evaluation Framework (REF) also now looks for evidence that research has an audience outside of the academy.

Secondly, the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (“which captures the knowledge, behaviours and attributes that the higher education sector, overall, has identified as significant for researchers” Vitae, 2015) cites, ‘engagement, influence and impact’ as one of the four key domains of the successful researcher –  getting involved in public engagement might actually help your research.

In some cases it may bring you into contact with people in other forms of business that can bring new synergies. For Professor Tony Ryan, his PE work with dress designer Helen Storey and the Storey foundation enabled him to bring techniques used in fabric spinning, into nano-technology research, enabling his team to solve an elusive problem in the field of tissue culture.

“You can learn to speak clearly, and leave the jargon behind… so you then you can explain anything to anyone. So when you come to a job interview and you’re surrounded by all these people, none of them who really understand what you do – you can speak to all of them, not just the one who understands second order differential equations as it applies to the spinning of fibres….” (Professor Tony Ryan, 2016)

Public Engagement doesn’t necessarily just have to be about telling others about your work. It is increasingly forming part of the research process, especially in areas of participatory research, which are now widespread in the humanities and social sciences. There is increasing interest in the field of the co-production of research and knowledge, such as Casey Strine’s work ‘Back to Where You Came From’, or the increasing body of work conducted within the Storying Sheffield projects. You can even think of it as a way of a “call to action” to get other researchers interested in what you are doing and collaborating with you.

Your PE activities could also be worthy of research publication in their own right, as new journals such as the NCCPE’s ‘Research For All’ provide avenues for publishing that will “describe, explain and analyse engaged research”, and crucially, will welcome submissions as images and videos as well as conventional text.

In a recent webinar entitled, ‘Research Impact & Public Engagement for Career Success’, Charlotte Mathieson, from The University of Warwick highlights that freely accessible digital tools and platforms such as YouTube can give you a really good starting point for working in PE (webinar link). Creating some kind of presence online is probably going to be a lot easier than taking on a large PE project in the first instance, though if you are taking on such a project, an online presence will be a really powerful way of enhancing this.

There are a broad range of transferable skills to be gained by getting involved in PE, including event organisation, project management and networking. Perhaps the most obvious one of these however is developing communication skills. Important components of these skills are the ability to define what the message is that you want to get across, and equally, defining who your audience is and learning how to understand their interests.  Irrespective of what kind of approach you take, there is the fundamental skill in being able to explain your work and its implications, to non-academic non-experts.

This is of course extremely important irrespective of what future career you may wish to pursue and will increase your own job prospects whatever your chosen field!