by Jane Scott
Previous attendances at public engagement events in the north of England led to this article. There are certain buzz words that are frequently used when projects are funded by research councils and organisations. One phrase that is particularly topical now is ‘Public Engagement’. But, what is public engagement really?
The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), states that it ‘helps universities engage with the public’. Their website states that the primary role of public engagement is to ‘be inclusive’ and they define it as;
the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.
One of the largest funders of the arts and humanities in the UK is the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) who have a project aptly titled ‘Public Engagement in the Humanities’. The Wellcome Trust suggests ‘being able to engage the public makes researchers – and their research – more successful’.
Yet, how ‘public’ and accessible is the actual engagement?
Part of the issue should be how do you present a project and its findings to the public without ‘dumbing’ it down, or without it being over the heads to those who attend? This surely must be one of the greatest difficulties for those involved with academic and scientific research? However, the public should have an opportunity to engage with the information, particularly if the funding comes from government agencies. The difficulty is how to get academics and scientists to share their research in a manner that the masses can access, and at a level that suits all attendees.
One successful project in engaging the public is the Ordered Universe. The project website states it is ‘Dedicated to fresh and original examinations of medieval science the project focuses on interdisciplinary readings of the scientific works of the remarkable English thinker Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253)’. The project even has a dedicated tab on their website for ‘Public Engagement’ which states that;
Ordered Universe members undertake a wide variety of activities open to the public. The Project itself has a series of public lectures attached to the research symposia programme, and a series of public forums (longer format events with public readings and analysis of Grosseteste’s works).
The Heritage Lottery Fund has many examples of projects on the HLF website, however, two are worth mentioning; ‘Kent’s Orchards for Everyone’ and ‘Restoring our Fenland Heritage’. These two projects are great examples of how the public has been involved, and how different organisations can be brought together.
The aim of sharing research and findings of a project is an important one. Yet, for some projects they could do more, and be so much better at doing this. There are still issues with projects that claim events are aimed at the public. Many are held in cathedrals or within different university lecture theatre’s in the UK and abroad. It is hard to see how these events are aimed at the wider public, they would need to be on mailing lists or have some link with the different universities.
It appears then that there is a selectiveness to these public events, and it could be questioned how ‘engaged’ the masses could ever be, especially when these events appear aimed at a narrow a section of the public. Universities and research projects need to do more, and be more aware of how they reach the public they claim they are attempting to engage with. Perhaps one way around this would be to advertise in public libraries and even on supermarket community boards in a hope to reach larger sections of the community.
Nonetheless, academics and the ways in which they share their research with the wider public is to be applauded and encouraged, but perhaps at the same time those who are sharing their research should be encouraged to be more mindful of how they reach the wider public, and how they engage those who do not have links to university academic departments.
This is the main reason The Historical Examiner came about. We want to be a bridge between academia and the general public. The Historical Examiner is here to encourage engagement between writers who share our passion for history, and who want to share it with our growing readership. We welcome ALL who wish to share an interest in history, including the published academic, postgraduates, undergraduate, sixth-form students and we especially welcome new writers who have a love of all things historical.
For more articles by Jane Scott click here.