2019 Engage Conference

The annual National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) Engage Conference took place 4-5 December 2020 in the centre of Bristol. The days consisted of a number of keynote talks interspersed with smaller group workshops and presentations. There was also a poster ‘fare’ and a ‘living library’ of individuals with particular expertise who could be consulted on a topic.

Theme of ‘disruption’

The overarching theme of the Conference was ’disruption’, by which was meant challenging the status quo and urging institutions to embed more radical forms of public engagement with research into their strategies and practice. It was noted that a lot of universities were still reluctant to share power and to be accountable to their communities and/or were hindered by systematic and structural hurdles to effective engagement. It was agreed that it was vital to have a change of mindset so that the general public are placed at the heart of everything a university does. Universities need to think carefully about what their local communities mean to them. The argument was made that only by collaborating with the public can universities acquire sufficient insight and build sufficient trust to make a truly effective contribution to tackling unprecedented global challenges and their repercussions at a local level. The more that universities can embed themselves in their communities, the easier it will be to build such collaborations.

It was noted that community and social engagement are likely to be equally valued alongside other forms of engagement in the Knowledge Exchange Framework and that they form an important part of HEBCIS reporting. It was agreed however that more could be done by all funders to promote the involvement of the public in research through existing and new funding schemes.

It was acknowledged that public involvement might not be appropriate in all aspects of research in certain areas and that it is important to understand the different points at which the public might enter in during the research cycle. For instance some of the experimental design and execution of a project about e.g. genetic modification or digital communications might require too much technical knowledge for members of the public but they could, and should, be involved in considering how these technologies might impact on or be taken up by society. Members of the public could equally help to share and promote the project findings with a non-academic audience.


In the first plenary Dr Jonathan Urch, Senior Public Engagement Officer at the University of Dundee, described how the creation of a central Public Engagement with Research Committee at the University had led to the development over the course of a year of a public engagement strategy with clear priorities and responsibilities cutting across all professional support and academic departments at the University. 

A second plenary considered the relationship of public engagement to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was argued that partnership is at the heart of the goals and that they offer a shared platform for building trust and pursuing shared priorities; also a tool for mapping impact locally and globally. The value of a co-produced approach to research in driving progress towards meeting the SDGs was recognised; also planning for sustainability from the start. It was noted that a number of universities are supporting or adopting the SDGs into their governance and strategies. It was agreed that sometimes academic promotion systems can work against community engagement by excessively valuing academic outputs (publications).

Julia Unwin, Chair of ‘Civil Society Futures’ gave a keynote entitled ‘Civil Society Futures - what role for universities?’ In this she emphasised the continuities between civic and public engagement and that the term ‘civic university’ must be more than a ‘spray-on’ brand. Instead the commitment needs to be genuine, pervasive and for the long term. Another increasingly commonly-used phrase ‘anchor university’ references an institution’s regional leverage and power; however, rather than brandish that power, universities should approach the local community with humility in offering their services. Rather than imposing their own views, they must recognise the expertise by experience, the sense of pride and the self-ownership present in all communities, including the most deprived. Universities need to try as hard to win the trust of their local population as they do their students and to listen especially to the voices of those with most at stake. 

The final plenary considered the relationship between ‘civic’ and ‘public’ engagement and was chaired by Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England. It was agreed that many universities were re-finding and redefining their ‘civic’ mission but that ‘civic’ might not be the most helpful term and that ‘place-based’ might be better and more inclusive of a university’s importance in the wider region, including in rural areas.