March 25, 2019
by Jennifer Wallace, Joint Interim Chief Executive/Head of Policy
Last year I spoke at the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s annual conference. The Centre works with academics and aims to support universities to increase the quality and impact of their public engagement activity.
It took me a while to get my head around the terminology – by public engagement they mean engaging with people like me. That language feels strange outside of academia. Public engagement in my world is about how the government engages with citizens and communities. Within universities, it is about how they connect with the rest of us – in civil society, in government and in business. We are their ‘publics’.
As my colleague Pippa has written in her recent report on co-production of evidence, we know academic research is the most trusted, but least used, source of evidence by policy makers and practitioners. Right now we need to harness all the knowledge we can to address the challenges we are facing as a society. From fake news, to trust in institution, to the ageing population to climate change – we desperately need solutions to these new problems. And to do that effectively, we need academics in the social sciences to interact with a far wider audience.
I use the word interact intentionally. This isn’t just about open access publications, one off events and a personal twitter account. When academics want to engage with their ‘publics’ they can be too slow to realise that the rest of us already have structures, relationships and networks that share knowledge around the system. We need academics to come closer to where these conversations are happening and engage proactively with them.
In our experience at the Carnegie UK Trust, engaging in the process of social change is fluid, non-linear and agile – we go where we get traction, we answer new questions along the way, we discuss and debate throughout the process, contributing the process of ‘policy diffusion’, not ‘knowledge transfer’.
And this leads to a more fundamental challenge to the role of academics in policy making and practice development. In a traditional model, academic experts generate knowledge. But when it comes to translating that knowledge into social change they are just one part of the process – and often not even critical to that change. For academics to thrive in this environment, they need to see themselves not as the ‘big fish’ who has all the answers, but as a smaller contributor (figure 1). This requires respect for cultures, knowledge and pressures from outside academia. Ultimately it is people that influence people, through story-telling and discussion.
The good news is that there is a lot more awareness of the need for this shift and a lot more discussion within the social sciences of what impact actually is (and isn’t). The new Civic University Commission report aims to bring universities closer to the communities that they serve. And the new guidance on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 specifically notes that “the relationship between research and impact can be indirect or non-linear (for example, co-produced research).” These are fascinating times for universities to redefine their role as contributors to social change, as an active part of the process, not merely the producers of a particular kind of knowledge.
Jen Wallace is Head of Policy at Carnegie UK Trust, a member of the REF Main Panel C (Social Sciences) and adviser to the Accomplissh Horizon 2020 research programme and past Chair of Evaluation Support Scotland.