Public Engagement: Making an Impact

Dr Alexandra Wilson (Oxford Brookes University) works on late 19th-century and early 20th-century opera, viewed within its critical, cultural and political contexts. Committed to sharing the findings of her research with a wider public, she has presented numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, and written programme essays and given educational talks for the Royal Opera and other opera companies in the UK and abroad. She is also the Co-Director of the OBERTO opera research unit at Oxford Brookes University. Continuing the conversation started by Laura Tunbridge’s recent post on all things REF-related, here Alexandra gives us an insight into public engagement: all that it entails and the benefits that it can bring. 


If you’re a PhD student hoping to enter the academic job market, you’d be well advised to get some teaching experience and to publish an article before graduating in order to give yourself a competitive edge. Administrative experience, although less essential at this stage, can also be useful, as can evidence of winning small grants. But there is now also a growing imperative to find ways of showing that your research has ‘impact’ potential. All of this can feel pretty overwhelming, but engaging with wider audiences can actually be a rather enjoyable way of making yourself stand out from the crowd.


Why does ‘impact’ matter so much?

Unsurprisingly, it’s mainly to do with the REF: impact counts for 20% of a department’s REF score and that percentage may rise. Academics selected by their departments to write impact case studies have to provide evidence that their published research has had a tangible effect beyond academia, whether that be social, economic or cultural. In many cases funding schemes now also require applicants to outline a strategy for disseminating their findings to the public.


What is impact and what is public engagement?

The two are not exactly the same. ‘Impact’, as defined in REF terms, is the public dissemination of your original research (possibly over an extended period of time) in a way that changes how people think or behave. Public engagement is something broader that does not need to draw upon your own research: a pre-performance talk surveying a composer’s life and works, for instance . Universities gather information about this type of activity for a document called the REF impact template, which summarises the ways in which a department as a whole has interacted with non-academic audiences.


Public engagement and your career

While no institution would expect someone looking for a first job to have a fully fledged impact case study, evidence of a willingness to engage with wider audiences is likely to be regarded as an asset. Public engagement activities can give you the experience and contacts that will stand you in good stead for more formal ‘impact’ activities in the future.

For those putting together a ‘portfolio’ career (as academics increasingly have to do), public engagement can serve as a useful supplementary source of income. It is also a sad but unavoidable fact that there simply aren’t enough academic jobs to go around and that some people end up changing direction after their PhD. But engaging with arts organisations, broadcasters, publishers and so on can open up interesting alternative career routes should leaving academia ultimately become necessary.


The personal rewards

Taking your research ‘outside the academy’ can also be personally rewarding in many different ways: put bluntly, it can be one of the most fun things we do. Many academics were engaging with the general public as a matter of course long before the ‘impact agenda’ formalised things.

Audiences for pre-performance talks, public lectures and workshops are often highly engaged, interested and enthusiastic – perhaps more so at times than some undergraduates. They ask tricky questions and force us to think on our feet. This in turn helps us to hone our academic skills: having to distil our research findings down to their essentials and communicate them clearly to audiences outside the field undoubtedly makes us better lecturers and better writers.


What kind of public engagement activities can I undertake?

All sorts of things: giving public lectures and lecture recitals; giving pre-performance talks for orchestras and opera companies; writing programme essays; writing articles for newspapers and magazines; being interviewed on the radio; curating exhibitions; organising conferences that are open to the public; or putting on composition workshops and festivals. You might only have time to dip a toe into one of these areas but that’s enough at this stage.


Where do I start?

There is no hard-and-fast route into public engagement and it comes down in large part to making contacts. If your supervisor is keen on public engagement, ask them to recommend you for anything suitable that they can’t do themselves. I first got into writing essays for the Royal Opera House when my supervisor had to turn down a commission and suggested me instead. That first essay has led to many more for the Royal Opera and they have passed my name on to opera companies across Europe: once you get going, these things tend to snowball.

Taking the initiative can also pay off. I once attended a careers workshop for PhD students organised by my university, at which one of the speakers was from Radio 3. I asked him for the name of the editor with responsibility for opera, wrote that editor a letter and received a positive reply. Something about my research topic seized the editor’s imagination and a great deal of presenting work followed: everything from Proms concerts to the Breakfast Show.

These days, of course, you can be proactive in engaging with wider audiences via social media.[ref]See also Annabelle Lee’s recent blog post on using social media.[/ref] A light-hearted blog post about operatic stereotypes that I dashed off one Sunday morning garnered over 17,000 hits in a week and led to a commission to write an article for The Guardian. But publishing your research proper online is a different matter and needs to be handled with caution: avoid giving away your precious PhD findings online at all costs!


Looking ahead

For REF2014 many departments felt as though they were fumbling in the dark when preparing impact case studies. It remains to be seen how different types of impact will be valued and graded: it is certainly more difficult for Humanities disciplines to demonstrate social change than it is for academics in some other fields. Departments were also forced to gather evidence of impact retrospectively but for future cycles the task should become easier. One thing is really clear, though: every early career researcher or junior lecturer will, from now on, need to think very carefully about how they disseminate their research and about how to gather evidence of its impact.

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