Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Trying to practice what I preach: a brief foray into public engagement

Last week I ran a small public engagement exercise in the centre of Norwich on the topic of, er... public engagement. The occasion was the annual UEA post graduate research showcase, which involves transplanting around 50 or 60 graduate students from our edge-of-city campus into the heart of Norwich, in the Millennium library. Researchers present their work through a mixture of posters, 'pecha kucha' presentations and cafe conversations. I applied to run a cafe conversation based on my research (on public participation and engagement) partly because I thought it would be fun but also because I hoped it would be an interesting experiment in practising what I preach. Would trying to run a cafe conversation myself alter the way I see the practice of the participation professionals who I study and critique or the way I view engagement exercises more generally? And how would members of the 'public' react to being involved in a conversation about how they could be involved in other conversations about science and science policy decisions? Would this be a reflexive turn too far?

The event has been running for a number of years now and is organised jointly by the post graduate research office and the University's community engagement wing, which was one of the flagship 'Beacons for public engagement' 2008-2012. This is interesting because it can be seen as a part of a broader trend to attempt to institutionalise and formalise approaches to public engagement within UK government and research institutions, since the late 1990s, and thus has some links with my PhD research which focuses on how participation has been institutionalised with regards to UK science policy. This story is also complicated by more specific changes in the demands placed on UK universities to do increasing amounts of outreach work and to demonstrate the impact of the research they carry out. This illustrates the burden of expectations which are placed on seemingly small events like the UEA post graduate research showcase, but also the danger of an important impulse for universities to engage and have relevance beyond the student and academic populations becoming instrumentalised into tick boxes, footfall numbers and quick procedural fixes. Furthermore, such activities are increasingly being seen as a subset of business engagement with research.

In the end my experience was a bit of an anti climax. My cafe conversation ran smoothly, but I inevitably ran out of time so didn't really feel we had managed to get into discussing the really meaty issues. I had deliberately tried not to simplify or 'dumb down' my spiel, as this is exactly the kind of thing that people like me criticise scientists  and science communicators for. Instead I tried to work in lots of opportunities for people to volunteer their thoughts, talk about their own experiences of engaging (or not) with government policy, respond to the information I was giving them about government public dialogue exercises, and ask questions of clarification. This worked moderately well, but there was not really enough time for people to warm up into the conversation and to start being more forthright with their opinions. If I were doing the same exercise again I would have to cut some parts of my conversation plan out, though I'm not sure all the information about specific public dialogue exercises would make sense without some discussion of justifications for participation and recent policy developments.

So if possible in future I would always opt for running a much longer session of around 60-90 minutes, but I would also be more prepared to be more flexible with the timing and to deviate from the plan to go with what other people are finding interesting to talk about. The title that I came up with for my cafe conversation was 'Democratising science and science policy: whose voices count?' which in retrospect was probably not the best way to drum up interest. I think in future I'll have to look to Alice Bell for inspiration, as she always has a witty quote or extreme statement to really grab people's attention to her talks and blog posts.

More substantively, the best part of my cafe conversation was finding that none of the participants seemed to be remotely phased or surprised by the ideas I was introducing and they all accepted and understood my topic of government public engagement exercises though none were aware of having been involved in one. People were generally positive about the idea of carrying out public dialogue exercises,  though they were equally sceptical about their impact on policy. Most had been involved in trying to influence government policy in some way, whether through online petitions, writing to their MPs or getting involved in protests.

What I was hoping to get onto was a discussion of the multiple ways in which citizens can engage with policy and voice their concerns, and how people felt government controlled forms of engagement such as public dialogue sat next to these. Unfortunately the time escaped me but I look forward to next time when I will make sure I get on to these more interesting questions.

So I do not think my view on public engagement processes has really changed from the experience, though if anything I have more respect for the skill and the effort that goes into running these things well. I will certainly seek out similar opportunities in future, not least as ways of enhancing my own research and understanding of my topic and developing presenting and communications skills.

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