Public engagement can help improve the quality of research and widen its impact. Researchers who work closely with the public also often find it enjoyable and rewarding. However, while there is much existing good quality public engagement, a research-driven culture means that public engagement is not a priority within many universities and research institutes and those researchers undertaking public engagement are not always well regarded by their peers.1
This is one of the reasons why RCUK, the UK higher education funding councils and the Wellcome Trust came together to create the Beacons for Public Engagement; a four year initiative to embed public engagement in the higher education and research sectors.
Review of evaluations
The initiative supports six Beacons across the UK and a National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). The Beacons are at the forefront of efforts to change the culture in universities, to help build capacity for public engagement and encourage researchers and university staff to become involved. They are also instrumental in creating networks and sharing best practice.
A key feature of the initiative was to promote the inclusion of public engagement in institutional strategies and management practices, rather than concentrating solely on the funding of public engagement activities.
Earlier this year, the funders commissioned an independent review  of the findings to date from the national and individual Beacon evaluations to help us to identify and share the learning so far. This review was conducted by People Science & Policy Ltd.
The various evaluations have identified many activities that are promoting and building a culture that supports public engagement within the Beacon institutions.
Successes across the Beacons include featuring public engagement activity in promotion criteria, inclusion of public engagement in the responsibilities of senior managers and the appointment of ‘champions’ for public engagement. They also feature the introduction of grant and other funding schemes, and prizes and awards for public engagement.
Capacity building, such as development of training and institutional infrastructures to support the involvement of staff in public engagement, has been a high priority of the Beacons. The evaluations record high levels of demand for such services and praise from academics for the quality of training and support received.
‘The Beacon Lab has helped change the direction of thought of our senior management…the Beacon is an engine for cultural change and is enabling us to make connections and embed public engagement across the university,’ said Professor Gerry Kelleher, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Our review found evidence that researchers new to public engagement have become involved because of Beacon activities. There are also indications that members of staff from Beacon HEIs feel more motivated and supported to undertake public engagement.
An academic at the University of Edinburgh commented: ‘I don’t think you would find a head of school who openly said it’s not important, whereas you probably would, maybe not a year ago but certainly five or ten years ago I would imagine you would.’
The initiative still has a year to run, yet it is clear from the review that the investment is starting to deliver the funders’ ambitious aims. The funders are now working with the Beacon HEIs and NCCPE to ensure a legacy and sustainability to the achievements made so far.
This is one of the biggest investments ever launched to support public engagement in the HE sector, yet it still only reaches a small proportion of our community. To embed public engagement more broadly across the sector, RCUK are therefore pleased to have worked with other research funders on a Concordat for engaging the public with research which will be launched in December.
More information about the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative can be found here: www.publicengagement.ac.uk/beacons .
1 Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers, Royal Society, RCUK and Wellcome Trust, June 2006, available at http://royalsociety.org/General_WF.aspx?pageid=7967