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Formalising public engagement in academia could reduce its impact

Scientists are much more positive about communicating their work to the public than is commonly perceived and many feel that public engagement skills are as important to a career as scientific, teaching and clinical skills.

But despite having a sophisticated understanding of 'impact' activities, there is widespread concern that formalising and incentivising public engagement – which the Research Excellence Framework (REF) suggests –  could lead to routine 'box ticking' and undermine the very reasons that public engagement is being undertaken.

These are among the findings of a report by academics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) published today (Wednesday 14 October). The first in depth qualitative and interpretative study into public engagement from the perspective of scientists themselves, Public Culture As Professional Science is funded by the Wellcome Trust and is the result of a three-year research project by Professor Sarah Franklin, Dr Kevin Burchell and Kerry Holden.

The findings go some way to supporting the Research Excellence Framework (REF)'s focus on the assessment of impact of research as the majority of scientists interviewed were positive about public engagement. Many interviewees spoke of an obligation, duty or responsibility to communicate their work more widely, either to the funders of their work or to the wider population who may be impacted by their findings.  

A desire to 'set the record straight' was also given as a key reason to engage with the public. Other positive reasons to communicate scientific work included the desire to build public support and the need to secure funding.

But the interviewees also raised concerns about the current trend towards formalising the assessment of impact of research and scientific work, which is what the REF currently requires.

Although some wanted public engagement activities to be more meaningfully rewarded within pay and career structures, it was noted that such formalisation would lead to scientists paying 'lip service' to the role, rather than meaningfully engaging when their work required it.

Concerns were also raised over the equality of universal metrics and rewards – with public engagement being easier for some than others depending on the  and the skills of the individuals involved.

Professor Sarah Franklin, acting director of BIOS at LSE, said: 'Our findings show that while scientists clearly have a much more sophisticated understanding of 'impact' activities than they are often credited with, and see these activities as more valuable than may have been previously assumed, the same depth of understanding that makes them good public engagement 'ambassadors' makes them wary about the significant obstacles to formalising assessment of impact in the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

'This raises questions about a recent and major policy shift in the evaluation of academic science. The question, to put it frankly, is whether including public engagement in the REF, while in some senses obviously desirable - credit where credit is due - is also possibly very undesirable, because it might evacuate the activity of the very meaning that makes it "work".'

Public Culture as Professional Science by Professor Sarah Franklin, Dr Kevin Burchell and Kerry Holden of the BIOS Centre at LSE, is launched on Wednesday 14 October at the Royal Society.  

Ends

Contact: Sarah Franklin, tel: 020 7955 6465, email: s.franklin@lse.ac.uk|

Notes:

Public Culture as Professional Science by Professor Sarah Franklin, Dr Kevin Burchell and Kerry Holden of the BIOS Centre at LSE, is launched on Wednesday 14 October at the Royal Society.

Dr Jack Stilgoe, Royal Society, Dr Kevin Burchell and Professor Sarah Franklin, BIOS, LSE, and Professor Colin Blakemore, Universities of Oxford and Warwick, will be discussing the issues raised in the report at 6pm Wednesday 14 October at the Royal Society. To attend, email Kerry Holden at k.holden@lse.ac.uk| 

14 October 2009

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