Public engagement and failure

It used to be said that the reason arguments are so vociferous and hard fought in science and academia is precisely because the stakes are so low. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore, if it ever was. Academic enquiry and everyday life are intertwined and universities are at the very centre of the culture wars. This is why public engagement and knowledge transfer is so important.

In this blog, Dr Geoff Cole discusses what motivates public engagement and our need to learn lessons from failed attempts. He argues that the research ‘impact’ agenda is driven by governments, suspicious of research and its role in society.


One of the stated plans of the Centre for Public Engagement is for academics to reflect on the process of engagement. What might be called ‘meta public engagement’ is the basis for the present blog.

For some areas of academia, knowledge transfer and engagement with external partners occurs organically. It is, however, more difficult for the more traditional fields of academia. I will argue that academics need to acknowledge the central factors that have motivated the current engagement exercise as well as learn the lessons of the previous failed attempt to engage the public.

The stakes are just too high for us to fail again

In many ways, the attempt to engage with the public is an odd exercise. No other sector feels the need to do this. Imagine NHS or judiciary staff being asked to consider how they can better engage society. This oddity is particularly acute when we consider that 50% of the UK population attend, and often live at, a university. With the exception of the school education system, this level of engagement dwarfs anything that occurs within any other area of the public sector.

Given the already huge level of engagement, where did the notion of engagement and knowledge transfer come from and, most importantly, what can it tell us about how best to proceed?

Many academics are, of course, motivated by a desire to improve the world and engagement is therefore central to what they do. Others, perhaps the majority, take a more traditional view of the university in which academics work out how the world works (i.e., research) and tell students what has been found (i.e., education). Successive governments have, however, been suspicious of this process and felt it does not contribute to society. This is particularly the case for the humanities (“What is the point of analysing a Caravaggio?”). This suspicion has manifested itself in a number of government policies. For example, when applying for government funding, academics now have to state what ‘impact’ their work will have. This occurs despite such apparent precognition being unethical; the current revolution in behavioural science states that scientists must stop pretending they predicted the pattern of data found. It appears to be a matter of trust, or lack of it; nobody ever questioned what a hospital registrar or a magistrate does.

Academics have failed to acknowledge that too many policy makers do not like what we do. Even President Obama, in a 2014 speech, criticised art history. Let us get our heads out of the sand, be bold, and deal with this issue.

Fundamentals not finding

One reason for the 30-year “crisis” and subsequent failure of “the public understanding of science” was that the whole exercise was not about the public understanding science. It was dominated by a long list of empirical findings generated by a vast array of scientific disciplines, particularly those concerning health and nutrition. The sheer abundance and exposure to these was itself a problem. There was almost too much knowledge transfer. The public were often confused by the seemingly different messages coming from, most notably, the field of nutrition.

Very rarely would the media or academics talk about science itself; what science is, what scientists do, how it is funded, journals, research councils, research assessment exercises, impact, and so on. Even our own students presume we stop work when term ends (“Hope you are having a nice summer break……”). One can only evaluate the latest findings if one has a basis or framework on which to evaluate the claims. Assessing quantum physics may be difficult but understanding impact factors is not. The public’s ignorance of the peer-review system, the very bedrock of academia, is a further case in point.

No scientific findings this week!

I often think that every university should simultaneously put out a press release entitled “No scientific findings week” in which we all agree not to feed the press with any latest discovery. This would generate enormous publicity. A Professor of Public Engagement can then explain that we want to emphasise academia as a process and its institutions, rather than relate yet more findings.

The public engagement movement has made a great start by acknowledging that active engagement produces more beneficial results than passive information transfer. We, as academics, now need to be clear about what we want society to know about.