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Opinion: Time to embrace public engagement to secure research funding

Funding for research will soon partly rely on how effectively researchers and universities engage with the community.

This year, for the first time, the Australian Research Council (ARC) will pilot the measurement of public engagement and impact by university researchers as part of the government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

It is clear that effective engagement will be used as a criterion, to some extent at least, for determining university research funding in the future. Like the public sector, which has had to rapidly adapt to increasing community expectations that the public should have a say on policy, researchers and institutions will now be incentivised to find new ways to engage their communities in the work they do.

Anika Johnstone

What is engagement and why is it important?

In announcing the pilot in November last year, the federal minister for education and training, Simon Birmingham, was unequivocal when describing its aim: “This is about testing how we can measure the value of research against things that mean something, rather than only allocating funding to researchers who spend their time trying to get published in journals.”

The ARC defines research engagement as “the interaction between researchers and research end-users (including industry, government, non-governmental organisations, communities and community organisations), for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, technologies and methods, and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity”.

The key phrase here is ‘mutually beneficial exchange’. It highlights that engagement shouldn’t be confused with communication or education, as these disciplines (while both valuable components of the mission of the university sector) stress the one-way dissemination of information. True engagement runs both ways and provides a level of influence to the research end-users.

For communities, effective engagement can provide greater access to research and ideas, build capacity and expertise beyond the confines of academia, and ensure research and funding (often from tax contributions) is aligned to greatest need.

For the university sector, effective engagement can improve public perception through transparency and access, enhance innovation through diversity and divergent thinking, and increase support for, and participation in, research and higher education more broadly.

Ian Moffat

The ARC engagement pilot

The ARC engagement pilot is voluntary and open to all Australian universities. The disciplines of chemical sciences, medical and health sciences, history and archaeology, as well as philosophy and religious studies, are included. They will be retrospectively assessed for their performance over the period 2008–13 in 2017 before the first full national assessment runs in 2018.

The prescribed engagement indicators include research commercialisation, open access publishing, funding involving end-users, and co-supervision of HDR students. The suggested list of activities that can be included in the engagement narrative incorporates consultancy, philanthropy, book sales, connections with outside communities, media coverage, social media reach and other activities.

Much of the assessment will be based on data already collected through the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) process in 2012 and 2015. The results from the 2017 pilot are not intended to be used to guide funding decisions but instead to inform the development of methodologies, processes and criteria for the full implementation from 2018. Following the pilot, all disciplines of a meaningful size in all Australian universities will be measured for engagement in the same way as they are currently rated for research by the ERA. The results will presumably have significant implications for the distribution of non-project specific research funding (“block” grants) which currently fund universities for about $1.89 billion per annum.

The UK experience

The push to quantify the connection universities are making with their communities has been influenced by a process that has been underway in the UK since 2014 through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). While there are differences between the way that the ARC and the REF measure engagement and use the results to determine funding, the UK higher education scheme provides insights into what the Australian experience might be like.

A 2014 review of the REF found that while it had succeeded in encouraging a “view of public engagement as core business”, there remained a perception that public engagement was not always being encouraged for the right reasons. Similarly, research conducted by the Wellcome Trust in 2015 found that while public engagement is now ‘valued more’ and being practised more, there are still challenges around both capacity and capability within the university sector to perform it effectively.

The UK experience demonstrates that getting the balance right, and supporting researchers to do public engagement that both creates impact and enhances research outcomes, will be a critical challenge for Australian universities.

Finding a model for effective public engagement in academia

Public engagement has been a central part of policymaking in the public sector for some time. For example, the South Australian state government runs an extensive suite of consultation programs, citizen juries, co-design projects and other opportunities for citizens to influence decision-making. Here the engagement agenda typically follows the International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2) prescribed approach for best practice participatory engagement.

This framework might seem superficially attractive for maximising academic engagement but IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum, with its focus on decision-making, can be an awkward fit for the breadth and complexity of research undertaken by the university sector. The engagement framework for astrophysics needs to be very different to that used for Indigenous archaeology. Academia needs a more flexible approach that can respond to the needs of researchers, institutions and communities.

IAP2’s spectrum is also designed to help organisations identify the impact of decision-making they are willing to offer constituents as part of an engagement program. In the university sector, it is probably more useful to frame this around an alternative driver for engagement: that is, providing the public with the opportunity to influence the focus and direction of research rather than just decision-making. This level of influence is a useful measure for evaluating the effectiveness of academic engagement in practice.

Typically, there are three types of engagement pursued by researchers. The first focuses on communication and education. This produces a mostly one-way exchange through a promise to keep stakeholders and the community informed but which offers them little by way of real influence on the research program beyond building community capacity to better understand what it is about.

The second is built around an idea of stakeholder contribution and participation in research without necessarily a promise to allow that contribution to shape the direction and focus of the research. Examples include citizen science, crowdfunding, museum experiences, volunteering or workshops.

The third, and best practice form of engagement, is one of true collaboration. This allows community and stakeholders to truly influence the focus and direction of research through partnerships and linkage projects, community commissions and research commercialisation.

Effective engagement and the ARC pilot

The ARC’s pilot rightly places emphasis on participatory and collaborative forms of engagement (measured particularly through co-authorship of publications, co-supervision of research students or stakeholder funding) rather than simple forms of communication or education.

What the pilot doesn’t do as effectively, despite having been informed by public consultation prior to release, is engage the community itself in developing the criteria by which engagement will be assessed. Instead, the ARC has relied on a set of criteria that matches the types of activities already being undertaken as part of research programs (and easily measured using already collected data) rather than reimagining, with the community, what best practice collaboration and co-design in a research context might look like.

Limiting engagement to criteria like external funding, co-authorship or commercialisation may ignore other forms of collaboration involving the influence of community knowledge, perspectives or experiences on research. The engagement criteria may even work directly against these.

A good example of this is the critical influence community groups should have on archaeological research through the provision of access to sites, defining and driving the broad research agenda, and providing guidance on what research is appropriate to publish. A truly engaged researcher would, as a matter of course, respect the wishes of a community not to publish research on a sensitive and confidential site. However, this could exclude this project from the ARC’s assessment and, in the future, may undermine the opportunity for this type of project to be funded.

This example highlights an opportunity for the ARC to demonstrate leadership in public engagement by ensuring that throughout this process the community has the opportunity to help define the ways in which they want to be engaged and what they believe success looks like.

Welcoming the engagement era

Both researchers and community members should welcome the increased focus of funding bodies on engagement and collaboration between universities and the community.

The pilot is a useful opportunity for all researchers to assess their level of engagement and consider what level of influence the community could have on their research, as well as how aligned it is to community needs.

While it is anticipated that, like the UK, this will be both a challenging and rewarding process that may take some time to work through, the further erosion of barriers between academia and the broader community can only be a good thing.

If research is made more relevant and more connected to those that are impacted by its outcomes, the value provided by universities, and the contribution they make, is also made much more visible.

Dr Ian Moffat is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow in Archaeological Science at Flinders University’s Department of Archaeology.
Anika Johnstone is a senior exhibitions manager at the University of South Australia’s MOD.

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