25 May 2017

Universities, Research and Public Engagement

Guest post by Dr. Richard Scriven. Richard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography, UCC, researching pilgrimage in Ireland.

In his post he uses an exhibition he curated as a platform to examine the idea that public engagement is fundamental to both research and universities

My exhibition, Journeys of Belief and Belonging: Modern Irish Pilgrimage in the UCC Library, explores the pilgrimage tradition and how it is manifest in contemporary Ireland. It illustrates how pilgrimage is a vibrant cultural phenomenon that inspires millions of people annually to leave home, go on a journey, and try to connect with the more meaningful aspects of life. An evocative account of the activity is presented through quotations from research participants and images from some of Ireland’s main sites Lough Derg, Co Donegal; Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo; Knock, Co. Mayo; and, a holy wells in Munster. I am also running public seminars on the topic to encourage public discussion and further conversations about the role of pilgrimage. The project is funded by the Irish Research Council and UCC Library.

The exhibition is a form of ‘public engagement’. This is the idea that researchers need to communicate their work not only to others in their field – usually through peer-reviewed journal articles and conference presentations - but also to a broader range of audiences. My public engagement programme aims to inform and educate the public about the role of pilgrimage, while also highlighting the importance of socially and culturally relevant research. It uses several platforms to present fieldwork images and the experiences of pilgrims, with context and commentary added to prompt new considerations.

The idea of public engagement is fundamental to both research and universities. As Moseley (2010, p.109) points out ‘although producing knowledge for its own sake is good, many commentators would argue that information should also be produced for the betterment of the human condition’. This speaks to the role of research more generally as a means of contributing to society. Comparably, universities, as public educational and knowledge-based institutions, have underlying purposes to communicate ideas and to add to civic discourses. Indeed, UCC’s motto of ‘Where Finbarr Taught, let Munster Learn’ captures this sentiment, referring to the people of the region as a whole. Within my field, this approach is sometimes called ‘public geographies’ which is ‘about bringing a disciplinary perspective into a broader conversation with the public’ (Moseley 2010, p.109). It highlights the importance of good research which studies relevant and significant issues, and then ensuring that the findings enter public discussions, and where applicable lead to policy and societal change.

There is, however, a gap between these ideals and the realities of research and university life. Furco (2010, p.375) contends that ‘community-focused public engagement activities are not typically found at the forefront of the academy’s work’. The combined pressures of the research and university environment, which prioritise peer-reviewed publications and quantifiable impacts tend to down-grade the role of public engagement.  Instead, institutions and funders need to ensure that civic engagement projects are recognised as valuable activities in funding and job applications. We need to strive toward more active approaches in which ‘community engagement is integrated into the research, teaching and service mission of higher education institutions’ (Furco 2010, p.387). It is only from such a position that findings and discussions will reach general audiences and flow towards societal change.

Fortunately, my emphasis on public geographies was seen as being an important component of my work by the Irish Research Council and UCC. I included a strong public engagement programme as part of my funding application for my fellowship. UCC prioritises external engagement as one of its strategic goals.  In addition, the UCC Library were extremely enthusiastic about my idea for an exhibition, which is being run as part of their regular exhibitions for the general public. This type of institutional support is essential to nurture an environment that prompts and furthers community engagement practices.

Consideration has to be given to how researchers communicate with the public. It is not just a matter of agree on the value of civic engagement, it is also about the form and effectiveness of these programmes (Stilgoe, Lock & Wilsdon 2014). Academics are used to writing and talking in certain ways, drawing on concepts and acronyms which are unfamiliar to those outside their fields. The challenge is to learn to ‘to focus on presenting, or "framing," their messages in ways that connect with diverse audiences’ (Nisbet & Scheufele 2007, p.39). In effect, we must ‘translate’ our work, using everyday language to ensure to reaches a broad range of people. For example, the UCC Postgraduate Showcase is an annual event that encourages researcher students to ‘develop innovative ways to communicate their research to non-specialists, and to present a compelling story around their thesis topic’. As part of this process, we must be conscious of our target audiences and how best to effectively make an impact (Stilgoe, Lock & Wilsdon 2014).

Public engagement will continue to become an important part of the research and university landscape. Institutionally, it requires support, while researchers need to meet this challenge to communicate to public as well as their peers. For me, the exhibition and public seminar are an integrated part of my postdoctoral fellowship. They are one of the main pillars on which I centre and assess my work. Hopefully, this will encourage others to reflect on how they can communicate their research to broader audiences to help improve society.

Furco, A., 2010. The Engaged Campus: Toward a Comprehensive Approach to Public Engagement. British Journal of Educational Studies 58, 375–390.

Moseley, W., 2010. Engaging the Public Imagination: geographers in the op-ed pages. Geographical Review 100, 109–121.

Nisbet, M., Scheufele, D., 2007. The Future of Public Engagement, The Scientist 21, 38–44.

Stilgoe, J., Lock, S.J., Wilsdon, J., 2014. Why should we promote public engagement with science? Public Understanding of Science 23, 4–15.

The exhibition Journeys of Belief and Belonging: Modern Irish Pilgrimage is running until the 24 June 2017


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