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Last October (2017) I was asked to write a short case study on the MPLS Division's Public Engagement journey over the last two years (2015-2017) to feed into the University's reporting for the Catalyst Seed Fund. The RCUK Catalyst Seed Fund (CSF) provides flexible funding directly to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to help create a culture where excellent public engagement with research is better embedded within the HEI and appropriately included within its policies, procedures and practices.

I thought I would share this for anyone one who might be curious about what the Division has been up to, and also the wider work of the University.


“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Let me go back to where we were this time a few years ago, before the Catalyst Seed Fund……..

The Divisional office was active in many senses when it came to public engagement with research (PER). It was explicitly referred to in our divisional strategy and we had a couple of ‘solutions’ to facilitate public engagement.
But… was that everything we could be doing? Did we have a sense of the breadth of work we could be doing to embed public engagement in the activities of the division? And what was it for anyway?

The benefits from CSF really started with conversations about it – people were talking about PER together in a very focused way that wasn’t just about activity but very much on the culture of public engagement across the University. It essentially put PER on the agenda. Another important change was the appointment of the now Head of PER, which really enabled the CSF work to be done meaningfully.

The formation of the Public Engagement with Research Advisory Panel was not only a way of feeding into wider work, but a great opportunity to share and learn with other Divisions. Specific projects, e.g., the audit of PER and PER-related training, have helped us to focus what we do, and make sure we have shared language and messages.

From here the development of the public engagement strategic plan and the conversations that took place to inform it started shining light on the multi-faceted world of public engagement, raising awareness with people beyond PER staff and interested researchers. It also gave us the opportunity to explore and ultimately decide what PER meant to Oxford. The plan found a space to create the right agenda that resonated.

Lesley, Head of PER, facilitated an EDGE analysis with us for our Division, which provided a baseline of where we were, and an idea of the tangible activities that could really make a difference; it set out some of the stepping stones along our journey and prompted us to reflect on where we wanted to get to.

The PER Seed Fund, and especially the VCs PER Awards have both raised the profile of PER and helped communicate and show what excellent public engagement can look like. A lot of people reported that they not only raised awareness of PER but also demonstrated a commitment to PER by the University that wasn’t evident before. They also highlighted some activities in MPLS that we weren’t aware of.

In the meantime, the Division had a change in senior leadership with Professor Donal Bradley taking over as Head of Division. From the beginning, public engagement was cited as one of his top three strategic priorities for the Division. Conversations about what we could do more broadly to support public engagement accelerated and were greeted with enthusiasm, and were granted space within the core business of the Division.

Having made the argument about the importance of developing the culture for PER, as demonstrated by the benefits seen by work at a University-wide level, I was able to carve out extra time dedicated to exactly this.

Recently, it feels like the momentum from various activities has combined to help us achieve ‘escape velocity’, where there’s been three significant ‘firsts’ in quick succession:

  • The Division’s very first academic champion for public engagement with research, the volcanologist Professor David Pyle, was appointed in October 2017.
  • For the first time in its five year history, the Division’s impact awards now have a category for public engagement with research.
  • Public Engagement is now ‘owned’ by a committee – people are paying attention and it’s now part of the agenda.

Others tell us that we’re moving forward with a sense of purpose, whilst acknowledging existing good practice and strengths.

But we still have some way to go. In developing our strategy in MPLS, we have to take account of our particular context, where we don’t need to redefine public engagement with research relative to the University-wide definition, but we do need to acknowledge and clearly explain the relationships between PER and the wider outreach and widening participation work that many of our departments are heavily invested in, and where much of the resource lies.

We also need to work on supporting and communicating with departments. We have a strong core of keen supporters of PER, but we can’t invent a time machine* to respond to the still common response when asked about barriers to doing PER: lack of time.

Our developing Divisional PE strategy is focusing on ensuring we find the best ways of working with and across departments, on adding value to what they already do, communicating the benefits of PER, supporting effective evaluation, and sharing case studies – all with the goal of increasing the value placed on PER and its recognition, so that we might start to move things to a place where we won’t need to generate ‘extra’ time.

The path hasn’t always been easy, or even obvious, but it’s hard to imagine how we would have made the progress we have made were it not against the backdrop of the excellent work being done as part of CSF. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve this on our own, especially in the space of two short, busy years.

*I have asked some of our physicists. They say it’s not possible.