By Sian Ringrose – Research Policy Officer 
Public Engagement is becoming an increasing part of an academic’s career.  The recent Stern Review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) emphasises the need for impact case studies to include impact in public engagement and understanding. For some academics the thought of engaging the general public with their research findings can be rather daunting. How can you explain complex problems and theoretical ideologies in simple, easy to understand language in novel and exciting ways?

Universities are increasingly recognising the need to be supporting their academics in overcoming these fears and barriers to public engagement. At the end of August I attended a Conference on Public Engagement, kindly hosted by the University of Glasgow.  This event was designed for academics interested in improving their engagement and enhancing the impact of their research activities. With a number of local engagement partners the conference also offered the opportunity to network and learn from those who are more comfortable in the public engagement arena.

The first parallel session I attended was on ‘Pathways to Impact’.  This session acknowledged that the terminology ‘Pathways to impact’ can mean different things to different people from different perspectives. RCUK’s Jenni Chambers outlined what the funding councils want to see in tenders, emphasising that academics shouldn’t feel afraid to build in support from external engagement specialists.  RCUK recognise that public engagement isn’t something everyone is good at and requires targeted resources to do it well.  The main thrust of Jenni’s point was to keep the ‘Pathways to impact’ sections simple, but thorough.

This message was reiterated by Rose-Marie Barbeau, the Impact Manager at the University of Glasgow.  She stressed the need for clear planning, really getting to the nub of why a public engagement activity is required, who is the audience, what is it going to achieve, how will you know you’ve got there?

A really nice illustration of how a small idea with the right support and skills can lead to successful impact story was introduced by Prof. Kevin O’Dell, Dean of Public Engagement.  His submission to REF2014 was enhanced by his work with schools engaging pupils on the subject of Genetics through his creation of the ‘Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies (ZITS)’. Through support by the Wellcome he was able to employ actors, and has developed a series of plays about Zombies which explain various genetic tools and techniques he and his lab researches. These plays have now gone on tour across Scotland as well as parts of England!

The number of public engagement partners at the conference also highlighted that the ways in which academics can and do engage with the public are growing.  From more traditional activities such as STEM ambassadors and Science Festivals through to Bright Clubs using the medium of comedy to disseminate research findings, there were plenty of opportunities for academics and support staff to discuss ideas and share experiences.

For more advice, ideas, training and tools check out the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and help inspire a shift in culture to truly embed public engagement in the higher education sector.