It’s been over ten years since I was bitten by the public engagement bug and moved from research to my current job. Back then I’ll admit that as a postdoc I hadn’t heard of the term ‘public engagement’ and had absolutely no idea of the ways in which it would change my life.
My public engagement story started when I was looking for something different to do at the end of my first research position. I was studying malaria and the bacteria that cause cavities in our teeth, and I hoped that this work would contribute to finding better treatments for these diseases. Despite how much I enjoyed the research, I felt I wasn’t making as much of an impact as I wanted. So I started to look at careers outside of the lab.
I tried some fascinating courses on patent law, science journalism and even one titled ‘Chairing Effective Meetings’, all of which have been really useful but nothing inspired me to jump ship to a new career. Then with three fellow postdocs, we signed up for a course called Sharing Science, with the ultimate aim of putting us in front of the visitors to Dundee Science Centre and an open day in Oban. I remember the training was fun but challenging. It not only made us think about what we would say and do in front of ‘real-life’ people (which was terrifying because I’d realised just how much jargon I used) but also why engagement was important to us.
My first experience of public engagement was really positive and I loved planning activities and seeing children’s reactions to them. What Sharing Science did so successfully was to give inspiring teachers the time to help us develop our skills over several sessions, with many opportunities to put those skills to the test. Looking back, I was very lucky that the first project I worked on in my new role was Sharing Science. I’d like to return to delivering this model of training and events for the University across all subjects. And we are fortunate to have a number of inspirational trainers at the University, who are doing just that.
Although I was still new to the world of public engagement, I somehow managed to convince the interview panel that I could do the job of Public Engagement Co-ordinator at the University. I established the University’s public engagement with research unit, and for two years worked off short one year grants, which was a precarious time for me with a young family. Then we secured funding from the University and our team grew to two: joined first by Louise, then Peter and now Shabnam. It’s been a wonderful decade and I enjoy what I do immensely, mainly because I get to work with amazing team of people every day.
Of course, things haven’t always run smoothly. I once organised an event in a pub in Arbroath that no-one turned up to. I had to encourage customers from the bar to the function room we had hired, and convincing them what they really needed was some Speed Science (like speed-dating but with 2 minute science presentations) in their lives was harder than I could imagine! Then there was the time that I danced (scripted), and fell off the stage (definitely not scripted) at one of our Bright Club comedy nights. And as you might expect there have been changes in where public engagement was located in the University and the focus on it has naturally ebbed and flowed. But I think we are now in the strongest position we have ever been to support our staff, students and the people and organisations we partner.
My move to a public engagement career coincided with the launch of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). The Centre was created to support a culture change in the UK higher education sector, where universities increase the quality and impact of their public engagement activity.
One of the first things that the NCCPE did was to shift the conversations towards engagement. Where previously we talked about “outreach” (where we went to speak to people in their communities), and sometimes “inreach” (where people came to visit our campus), we now thought of engagement as a two-way process that benefits our staff and students, just as much as it benefits people outside of the academic world. This really helped to change mindsets when speaking to colleagues, as they started to consider how they and their work could benefit from more public involvement.
That’s not to say that people were not already doing excellent engagement with their work. Many of our staff and students have been doing this their whole lives without even thinking of it as ‘public engagement’. This engaged practice often happens when we employ and work closely with people from different backgrounds, and work in different sectors. These fresh and differing points of view were obvious to us all when back in 2007 we invited families in Dundee and Edinburgh to help us find a new treatment for malaria. The questions (oh so many questions!) the children and their carers had for us after curing a six-foot doll of the malaria parasite were always welcome and often made us consider our research in a new way (“do mosquitoes get sick?”, “can I get malaria?”). I remember how sharing our work with others reminded us why we did research and I returned to my lab full of enthusiasm.
I’ve been fortunate to attend the NCCPE’s Engage Academy for people who work in public engagement – a similar course is offered to researchers – and this has helped me reflect back on the change that’s been happening in universities across the country. The sector has grown with more people working in universities in roles dedicated to supporting public engagement, and we have welcomed many colleagues to our University. We have been joined by colleagues in every area of the University who support our engagement, and are helping anchor the University in our city.
Where before there was little national recognition of public engagement, Universities can now apply for an Engage Watermark that assesses how we embed engagement in our work. I am delighted that the first two Faculty awards in the UK were presented to the School of Life Sciences and the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science. Both of them received Gold – the highest award! The Watermarks are raising the profile of engagement in our universities higher than ever before, and this can only help us as we strive to ensure everyone at the University has an opportunity to develop their engagement skills.
The way we think about and support our engagement at the University of Dundee has developed considerably in the last three years. We have created a way in which everyone can have their say on decisions around public engagement; are helping people share best practice; and I was part of the group published our first Public Engagement Strategy. All of this work will support the University’s Engage Watermark application this year.
So now more than ten years on I am immensely proud of all the changes I see in our universities and the professionalism of public engagement. There are still many challenges for us to overcome, not least how we better communicate our life-changing work, and how we support people in public engagement roles. But when I’ve helped five 8 year olds discover a new treatment for malaria within five minutes using only Velcro, coloured water and a microscope, I believe that anything is possible! I’m up for this challenge and sharing our public engagement stories is a step in the right direction.
I’m looking forward to hearing your public engagement stories. If you would like to contribute to this blog please comment below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org