Evolving Engagement

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: Research and Enterprise Services


Heriot-Watt is an international university, with full overseas campuses and many partners. Our University-wide public engagement unit, HW Engage has been very successful, winning multiple awards and prizes leading to widespread recognition both inside our university and across the sector. We have brought the passion we feel for our science and engineering to a very wide constituency and we know that this has had a positive effect on our university community. Now, we aim to fully and permanently embed this in our University's global culture and long-term strategic plan, by securing the full support of community stakeholders and the most senior leadership in our organisation.

We will adopt an evidence-led approach to influence the culture change in our university that we seek, and we aspire to help drive this cultural shift across the sector. We have had significant success in driving culture change in our own organisation through our Athena SWAN effort (this is a sector-wide Charter recognising advancement of gender equality - representation, progression and success for all). We deliberately adopted a consultative approach in this, to help establish our 'baseline' to understand a wide range of policies and positions. Here, we will do a similar thing: we will consult widely with our university colleagues to understand what they do, and why, in terms of public engagement and try to understand what they get out of this. We will also consult extensively with our public and other audiences to determine what they want from public engagement. We will then design a 'good practice checklist' based on this 2-way consultation, keeping our public involved throughout. We will build an Action Plan to follow specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and measurable initiatives for the duration of this project, with all actions designed to help mainstream and embed public engagement in our organisation's culture and shape future strategy. Activities such as 'Themed Years' will keep public engagement prominent in the agendas of colleagues and senior leadership, as well as keeping our science visible for our publics. Training programmes will enhance our colleagues' abilities to design and deliver effective public engagement that the public want, and management and leadership processes will recognise and reward this.

We have already overhauled our governance of public engagement at Heriot-Watt with a newly established strategic committee Chaired by our Deputy Principal and reporting directly to our most senior leaders on our University Executive; we are very keen to establish a direct line between our publics and our Principal. This committee will also include members of our public community to ensure continuous involvement in our decision making. After 12 months, we will run further public consultations (using focus groups and innovative methods, like walking interviews around our beautiful campus), to see how perceptions have changed against our baseline understanding and to help refine our Action Plan moving forwards.

At the end of this process we will share our findings across the sector. We will share our Good Practice Checklist ('EngageMe') with other public engagement professionals or interested parties, so that they can begin to assess their own baseline positions and construct their own Action Plans. Ultimately, we will create an online resource to track public engagement baseline positions and progress in becoming embedded across a progressively Engaging Britain, to provide a database of activity for the entire sector that can identify 'gaps' and future opportunities. Our own measure of the cultural changes we desire will be reflected in the inclusion of public engagement in our university 2018-25 strategy, better, fit-for-purpose engagement with the public, a continuing 2-way dialog with our communities, and an upskilled and enthusiastic cohort of appropriately recognised and rewarded engagement colleagues.

Planned Impact

What does a publicly engaged university of the future looks like?

Who might benefit?

We aim to provide excellent public engagement with research (PER) for a wide range of beneficiaries. A particular focus of our future PER Strategy will be to reach diverse audiences with PER that they want. To us, this means making extra efforts to access communities commonly overlooked by PER from Universities - disadvantaged groups, in alternative, non-science venues. We aim to embed PER in the culture and planning of our university. For PER to be embedded and valued, governance arrangements need to be in place, enabling and empowering researchers to share their research and establish mutually beneficial relationships with the public. The often ad-hoc nature of PER, and a common lack of clearly articulated strategy can lead to wasted effort, low quality engagement and engagement fatigue. Universities are constantly trying to evaluate the impact of their engagement, but there remains a real struggle to get meaningful and impactful results.

The importance of PER within institutions is rising, but remains inconsistent across the UK. The Factors Affecting study states that PE still has an uncertain place within institutions and their structures, with a lack of high level commitment from senior management a key barrier. Where universities have taken steps in embedding PER, most initiatives are HEI-led, without consultation from the community about what works, what they want, and what they need. It is also known that some researchers turn to 'tried and tested' approaches engaging the public with research, rather than considering new ways to engage. But do the public like these tried and tested ways, or are the methods part of the reason that Universities struggle to engage with some audiences? How could we engage through social media, and do the public want us to?

In answer to these questions, our strategy to influence culture change in this project will lead to a better informed public, who help co-design the PER they want. This in turn will engender a cohort of academics, researchers and professional services colleagues within our organisation who are enthusiastic, trained, recognised and rewarded. The next generation of colleagues will also be more able to articulate and explain their complex science to a broader audience - this is important for academia, society as a whole and also for the individuals wherever they are employed. We have also noticed a strong correlation between those who are involved with PER and good teaching practice in our university. Thus, we expect that enhanced PER training will also impact on our undergraduate and graduate students bodies. Finally, we are an impactful university, with strong industry ties. Although not an explicit part of our proposal, we fully expect our industry partners to benefit also - we will seek to involve them in training and dialog about the importance of engaging publics in their work and we have no doubt that this will be of 2-way benefit.

How will they benefit?

Our proposal sets out a series of interlinked measures, actions and innovations to ensure a direct connection and dialog between our publics, partners and our most senior leadership, to our Principal. The public will benefit by interacting with our university body in a series of consultations. They will also benefit by being properly involved in shaping the PER they want. Our university and our colleagues will benefit in this dialog and in better understanding not only PER, but our purpose. Our industry partners will benefit too, by similarly learning from us and our communities how best to communicate their own purpose and place in society. The HEI sector will benefit from what we learn and from our plan to disseminate our findings. The HEI PER professional community, RCUK and other funding agencies will benefit from our planned 'Engaging Britain' tool that will map and identify future gaps and opportunities.


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Description We undertook a series of focus groups, both with our staff and with our local communities, to establish our baseline understanding of the hurdles and drivers in two-way dialogue around research. We gathered a wealth of information on internal perceptions of PER, and public wants/needs in relation to PER.
Several key learning points arose from the focus groups and wider discussions as part of SEEPER, including:
1) Financial reward is not necessarily a driver for academics to participate in PER, however a clear finding was that lack of recognition both in time and performance reviews is a hurdle for academics to undertake quality PER. These findings have been presented to the University leadership, resulting in actions in our developing strategy to address this, and ensure that PER is recognized and rewarded appropriately.
2) Our academics reported that whereas HW Engage has been highly successful in raising the profile of PER in HW, it was seen as being severely under resourced. In 2017, HW Engage comprised 1x 0.5 FTE Public Engagement Coordinator, working to implement all public engagement activities across 5 campuses in 3 countries. An action was formulated to address this (below).
3) Our community focus groups found that our local publics had no understanding of the term public engagement, nor did they have ideas about the purpose of a university, or that research is undertaken there. We also found that describing the impacts of research that might have benefits for our communities was well received and elicited a more emotional response from those publics. These challenges were presented to our University Global Leadership Forum, alongside a think piece from NCCPE's Paul Manners which sparked extensive discussion and debate about how we best identify, prioritise and engage the public and our local communities in our research.

A key finding of the public focus groups was that the public are interested in being involved in our research, but we have to reach in to them, to bridge psychological and physical barriers. Being a campus university, we struggle from being out behind a gate, and thus perceived as 'not for us'. In April 2018, we brought Edinburgh International Science Festival to the Heriot-Watt Edinburgh Campus for the first time, and importantly, worked with local community groups to bring new audiences onto campus. The festival is internationally renowned, high profile, and a sought-after public engagement activity by University academics. Over recent years, HWU academics have taken part in the events of the festival, which take place within the city, and predominantly cater to a relatively affluent audience already high in science capital.
Being based on the outskirts of the city, and close to areas of multiple deprivation, we created an event as part of the festival, based at our campus in our new sports centre. The reasoning for this was complex, but primarily:
1. Communities to the west of the city and in SIMD40 areas (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, where SIMD40 represents the most deprived 40%) do not typically attend the city-centre cultural offerings, due to cost and distance
2. Academics are keen to engage with new audiences that don't typically attend science festivals
3. Bringing this high-profile event on campus would likely raise the profile of PER, and help leadership understand the multi-faceted benefits to PER.
Following negotiations with the festival directors, we hosted a one-day family fun day at Oriam, on the Heriot-Watt Edinburgh campus, with workshops and drop in activities from both Heriot-Watt academics, other universities and public facing partners.
The day attracted >5200 people from local areas, highlighting the appetite for science within these communities. By working with a local bus company and primary school, we aided children from SIMD40 areas to come to the event, many of whom had never been to a science festival before.
Extensive evaluation was performed for us by ScotInform, revealing that the majority of visitors had never engaged with our university, nor had they experienced the EISF before. We found that they valued our impact stories and open discussions and would be keen to engage further. A success has been the commitment of the University to fund further EISF events on campus, demonstrating an advance in the valuing of PER and our local communities.
Throughout 2018 we kept the profile of PER high with our themed year events, which through a series of events, sought to spark debate and dialogue on issues related to the marine environment.
Exploitation Route Findings now embedded in the Heriot-Watt University Strategy. Good practice check list will shortly be available to partner universities.
Sectors Education

Description During the SEE-PER period, we developed a baseline understanding of PER activities in our university, using the Pure system, and existing knowledge from the HW Engage team. A clear finding was that academics rarely register this information on the Pure system (n=235 over 4 years), and there is a vast array of high-quality engagement goes unrecognised - this was both a success to know that an appetite for PER exists, and a challenge to address. We also gathered information on the hurdles and drivers in PER. We have developed an evidence-based action plan collating information from a variety of sources. These include focus groups, EDGE-tool analysis (with distinct groups including senior leaders, PER 'Champions'), and external community engagement. A summary of our EDGE tool analysis can be found in the Appendix. All this evidence gathering was collated in extensive sessions facilitated by Evaluation Support Scotland. These were attended by a senior academic helping design our new University Strategy, members of our newly-formed Policy and Impact Team and the Director of our Research and Enterprise Services Directorate. These sessions allowed us to discuss and develop terminology and priorities around PER that will be included in the new university strategy. To maintain our strategic approach, we have formed a Steering Group to provide strategic oversight of our PER activities, chaired by our Deputy Principal (Pro Vice-Chancellor) for Research and Innovation, reporting directly to our University Executive.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal