In this short introductory guide to public engagement for doctoral students, first year PhD student Julie Latchem (Sociology, Cardiff University) sketches out the basics of ‘getting started’ and shares her experiences of her own public engagement activities and impact plans. Julie’s PhD looks at how the futures of people with severe brain injuries are shaped during their rehabilitation and focuses on relationships between patients, their families and health care professionals in rehabilitation and long-term care settings.
- The Impact Agenda
- Details on doing public engagement – the path to impact through the PhD
- Doing research with impact – an interview with an expert
- We’re not there yet – engagement doesn’t equal impact – it’s all about the evidence
The Impact agenda
PhD students will undoubtedly have heard about or been party to in some way, the debates, conversations and work of academic researchers with work submitted to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). While previous research assessment exercises (RAE) had considered engagement, REF is different for academics for one fundamental reason – this time, the impact of research on non-academic audiences is a major element in the measurement of the quality of research. It therefore also has a direct effect on how universities and units of assessment (e.g. subject departments, schools, etc.) are funded.
Research impact is broadly defined by Research Councils UK (RCUK) as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. For RCUK, impact from research has two main strands, ‘academic impact’ (or scholarship that influences the academy) and ‘economic and societal impact’, but as highlighted by the ESRC ‘It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference or publishing a report. You must be able to provide evidence of research impact, for example, that it has been taken up and used by policy makers, and practitioners, has led to improvements in services or business.’ There is an emphasis on ensuring that impact is made beyond the walls of the university, beyond contributions to knowledge within academia so that research has some form of effect on, or benefit to the economy, policy, services or quality of life.
In order to make such ‘economic or societal impact’, engagement with people outside of academia, with the public, with practitioners, with businesses and other organisations is likely to be a starting point to doing research which leads to impact.
What does this have to do with me?
Impact is here to stay and for those of us who hope to have academic careers and to continue researching in the future, achieving impact may perhaps become as important to our working lives as publishing academic papers. In essence, researchers have to demonstrate the impact their research is making in order to either continue to receive funds or to make cases for future research funding. The ESRC explains: “In recent years, the government has placed increasing emphasis on the need for evidence of economic and social returns from its investment in research. By ensuring that ESRC-funded research makes the biggest possible impact on policy and practice, and improving how we measure and capture this, we are better able to support the case for research funding.”
What if I don’t plan to have an academic career after the PhD?
Whether or not you plan to stay on in academia, all sorts of roles require ‘building cases’ for why a service, a certain project or role should be funded and what difference it will make – so thinking about how and why what we do is useful or can be seen to have value is important and can be applied in many other sectors. But more than that, the impact agenda is also about accountability. Whatever we do after our PhD doesn’t detract from the fact that we are accountable in the present.
As PhD researchers we may feel very much our own boss. For those of us who have worked in organisations prior to commencing a PhD, the relative lack of a requirement for ‘reporting in’ and surveillance of our work day to day is new – both liberating and somewhat disconcerting. Nonetheless we are accountable to ourselves, our supervisors, schools and departments and to those providing us with the funds to be a PhD student – the ESRC – but we can’t stop there. Our PhD is funded through the ESRC – yes, but where does the ESRC get their money from?
The ESRC receives most of its funds through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – a government department – funded through public taxes, so, in effect, the taxpayer has paid for our PhD and we are, in essence, accountable to them. We do however share this accountability. First, the Doctoral Training Centres, our universities, our schools/departments and the academics within them have undergone scrutiny to make sure they can be trusted as places in which the money can be spent. Second, they act as partial ‘gatekeepers’ to this money by judging our applications and selecting us as recipients of these funds. While judging our applications, they will have done so against a framework which includes potential for impact. One might argue then that we could leave it there and rest assured that our work is deemed to be of intrinsic value and that will by its very nature have some form of impact. However, as recipient and user of these funds, it’s our work, it’s our skill development that has the potential to make an impact. How we use these funds and what return on investment the tax payer gets for this investment is in many ways, although not exclusively, in our hands. That leaves us then with a continued direct link of accountability – at some level, to the people who have paid for our research. What would their views be of our work? Should we be finding opportunities for them to shape it? Should we be making sure they know (or can easily find out) about it? Should we be developing links with relevant non-academic organisations, where these exist? Not surprisingly, such things are now explicitly encouraged by our formal funding body – the ESRC.
What is public engagement?
Public engagement is defined by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE):
“Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”
There are a series of other terms which relate to the public engagement in and with research – consultation, involvement, knowledge exchange. These terms are all interrelated and part of public engagement, which is seen as one route to/for achieving ‘impact’, but, for me, the meaning of these terms are distinct and lend themselves to different types of activities and stages of the research process. In the next section I explore these different terms, sketch out how they can be conducted in various stages of the research process, and provide examples of my own engagement activities conducted during the first year of my PhD and my plans for the remainder.
How do I get started with public engagement and thinking about impact?
The ESRC advises that in order to plan impact effectively you need to:
- identify your key stakeholders, for example, other researchers; public sector; business/industry
- Identify how they will benefit from your research – types of impact might include: improving social welfare/public services; influencing public policy; contributing to operational/organisational change
- Identify how you will ensure they have the opportunity to benefit, for example through organising public events; conferences; interaction with the media.
This is what I did to get started. Alongside drafting out my research design, I thought through those three points and wrote what I called my ‘PhD Public engagement and impact strategy.’ I completed this document within the first three months of starting my PhD.
Tips on creating a strategy
- Follow the ESRC impact planning steps 1-3. An excellent way to get thinking about this is to attend a course provided by your University. In Cardiff, the University Graduate College Course Research in Context – Engagement and Impact uses discussion and tasks to take you through these three steps. If you are unable to get to such a course, note that it is based on the ‘Research in Context’ course created by the NCCPE. Further information and resources can be found on their website www.publicengagement.ac.uk. You can also find out more at: https://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/humanitiesconnect/work-with-humanities/engagement/
- Think big and small – When thinking about ‘engagement’ as a route to achieving impact it can be easy to think that the difference your activities and work makes has to be big, but small connections and interactions can be and often are, a very important part of the engagement process. Make sure you get down all the small things you can do – you never know where those might lead. However, at the same time, also think and aim a bit bigger too. Identify what your ideal engagement event would be for example and imagine what impact you would ideally want to make with your PhD if there were no limitations on what you could achieve. Write it down, you never know what opportunities for funding may arise, what contacts you may make along the way which opens doors to allow you to make the impact you want. Your impact strategy document is a statement of intent – what RCUK would describes as ‘pathways to impact’ – not an absolute – but if you can be clear about what you want to achieve, when an opportunity does come along you’ll a) be able to recognise it is one and b) be ready to capitalise on it.
- Think creatively – With multimedia, new visual software, social networking and new ways of accessing and interacting with others and with groups being constantly developed, think about how you can utilise these new resources and ways of engaging others in your research and get it written down in your strategy.
For other tips on how to get started go to: www.publicengagement.ac.uk/how/guides/easy-ways-get-started
Details on doing public engagement – the path to impact through the PhD
Consultation is a process of seeking the views of and input from people who your research may matter to or affect. Consultations can be very broad – for example, asking people what they feel are the key issues which require attention in a given area or more focussed, presenting a proposal or outline ideas and asking people to comment on the current plans.
In order to maximise the use of consultation, consult with stakeholders as early as possible in your PhD research. Consultation, although it can be conducted in different stages during research, tends to be an activity conducted in the initial stages of a research project.
What did I do?
My PhD research looks at how the futures of people with severe brain injuries are shaped during their rehabilitation and focusses on relationships between patients, their families and health care professionals in rehabilitation and long-term care settings.
The stakeholders of my research include patients, their families and healthcare professionals, health care managers in both the NHS and independent sector, commissioners, related charities etc.
I conducted three types of consultation activity:
- 1:1 consultations with individual stakeholders
- a consultation with a multidisciplinary specialist health professional team
- an evening consultation event
I met face-to-face or spoke over the phone with ten individual ‘stakeholders’. These included family members of people with severe brain injury, paid carers and health care professionals with experience of working with or whose work was connected to the rehabilitation and long-term care of people with severe brain injuries. I told each of them about my research and asked them if they felt there was a need for my research and if it was important, what they felt were the main issues in the area, how they felt I could best involve people with severe brain injuries in my research and other questions specific to my research concerns. These consultations lasted between 1 and 2.5 hours each.
I contacted the manager of a local health care professional team who specialise in the care and rehabilitation of people with brain injuries and asked if I could come and talk to her and her team about my research and ask them for their views. Seven members of the team spoke to me for an hour in their workplace, at their fortnightly team meeting. I asked them the same key questions as I had in the individual consultations but added in questions that related to organisational and team working.
Evening consultation event:
I organised an evening consultation event and invited a range of stakeholders to attend. 15 people including health care managers, members of the public and health care professionals attended. The evening was devoted to discussing in more depth and expanding on issues that had arisen during the 1:1 and team consultation. I also asked attendees their thoughts and views on more targeted areas which I felt may be important in my research and invited them to consider the practical challenges I may face during access and data collection and advise me on ways to overcome potential problems.
The event was held at a local hotel that was accessible to those attending. I secured free room hire and support from the ESRC DTC for costs of food and drinks which I used as an incentive for attendance. The event was scheduled to last two hours but actually lasted over 5 hours.
Reflection on consultation:
All the consultations I conducted and each type/method of consultation was useful. There were however pros and cons for taking each approach, but each provided a different dimension to the process. As with research methods, 1:1 consultations provided the opportunity for me to discuss the thoughts and concerns of individuals about my work. These consultations generated considerable depth of discussion as stakeholders reflected heavily on their own experiences in relation to my questions, contextualising my work as they went and giving me vignette style examples to either highlight the need for a greater understanding of the research questions I posed or to provide example case studies of where various methodological approaches would either work or prove problematic.
The team consultation allowed for a very situated discussion about the realities of current working practices in the NHS. Discussion with the group stimulated the telling of shared experiences and practices of care within the group that related directly to the research questions but also challenged their formation.
The time and space of the evening consultation created a more relaxed environment where discussion could build on the issues that had been raised in previous consultations. The mix of stakeholders with different positions, employers and perspectives led to a broader discussion about the research area and enabled opportunity for both further problematizing of research questions and finding solutions to potential methodological challenges posed by the PhD. In this forum there was more scope for asking broader questions and discussion began to move on from purely consultation of pre-formed ideas to the generation of other questions, ideas, needs and various interests.
For me, conducting the consultations was also a chance to re-establish previous working relations, to re-connect old networks, to bring together a range of different people and to make new contacts.
Thinking practically – Tips on arranging and conducting consultation:
- Start early: Once you have established who your stakeholders are, begin to contact relevant people early on in your PhD journey.
- Utilise old networks if you can: I utilised previously established networks that I had formed in my previous career and used that as a springboard for making new contacts.
- Don’t be afraid to ask and keep it simple: when contacting and asking people to consult on my research I kept emails brief, simply explaining that I was a PhD student and I would be very grateful if they would share their thoughts and views on the topic area and planned work with me.
- Incentives: Every time I asked someone to consult I offered an incentive – coffee and cake or an evening event with food and drink were the incentives I used, however, I rarely needed them. People were prepared to talk to me without much encouragement or incentive. If your research is relevant to the people you approach, especially if it has the potential to help them, or is an area in which they want to see improved, their willingness to engage may be automatic. It’s amazing how many people will give their time freely.
- Make it easy for them: Although people are often very willing, make sure that you provide sensible times and places for meeting. Offer to go to them and if they offer a time that doesn’t suit you, try and rearrange your diary so you can accept the first date and time they offer.
The new emphasis on ‘impact’ underpins a more open, shared way of looking at the planning, conducting and disseminating of research between those researching, those being researched and wider communities. Definitive participatory and emancipatory methodologies have been and are continually being developed to bring public involvement into the designing, conducting and disseminating of research in extensive ways. These approaches shift the historically peripheral position of stakeholders and subjects to a more central one, being involved in the entire research process and even sometimes becoming part or all of the research team itself. While such participatory and emancipatory research methodologies are not always possible or appropriate in social science research, the climate has shifted: Where once social scientists might ask ‘should we involve stakeholders at some point’, the question now is more like ‘when, how and to what extent should we involve stakeholders’. The answer to this will of course depend on the research design, topic and approach taken.
What am I doing?
In my own research, I am conducting an ethnography in two independent neurological rehabilitation and long-term care settings. Following the completion of data collection and after a period of initial data analysis I have agreed with my research sites that I will present and discuss my initial analysis with them, asking for their thoughts and responses to my initial findings.
Stakeholder involvement in research, however, may come in more subtle ways. What and whom researchers are granted access to, for how long, are mediated, often by the very people we seek to involve in our research. Their influence on our research is likely to go far beyond their participation as research participants – including how our research is enabled to be conducted.
‘Knowledge exchange’ overlaps with consultation, involvement and is also part of the pathway to impact.
‘Knowledge Exchange (KE) is about opening a dialogue between researchers and research users so that they can share ideas, research evidence, experiences and skills. This can involve a range of activities; from seminars and workshops to placements and collaborative research. By creating this dialogue, research can more effectively influence policy and practice, thereby maximising its potential impact on the economy and wider society.’ (ESRC website)
How to create ‘a dialogue’?
Consultation with key stakeholders about your research and involvement in data analysis for example, can be part of ‘creating a dialogue’, but unlike consultation and involvement, ‘knowledge exchange’ refers to a much broader range of activities and includes the dissemination of research.
What am I doing?
I am inviting health care professionals working at my fieldwork sites to contribute to the development of data collection methods for use with people with severe brain injuries – with profound and multiple impairments. To achieve this will require the sharing of ideas, experiences and skills, putting them in to practice and then reflecting on the successes and failures of a given approach.
Other informal opportunities for knowledge exchange may present itself during the PhD – for example, an opportunity to present elements of your work at professional conferences, to raise questions at public meetings or within the public engagement events run by others.
Although knowledge exchange overlaps with consultation and involvement, it is more likely to be the aim of activities towards the latter half and at the end of the research process. Knowledge has to be gained before it can be exchanged – so knowledge exchange lends itself particularly well to the sharing of findings, to dissemination.
I plan to:
- Return to my fieldwork sites and present the final research findings and produce a short report or executive summary of the findings to give to participants, fieldwork sites and other similar care settings. The summary will also be sent to relevant online forums with a request for them to link to it on their ‘research pages’, to professional contacts, key professional networks, research groups and relevant voluntary organisations.
- Contact local carers groups and care provider associations and ask to present the key findings of my work, relevant to them at their meetings.
- Contact professional body magazines with a view to writing of blogs or articles or request inclusion in their ‘result announcements’ or in ‘recent publications’ sections.
- Present elements of the research at health care professional conferences – either as panel presentations, paper presentations or posters and eventually publish papers in appropriate journals.
- Send key findings that relate to professional practice to lecturing staff and advertised through clinical practice educator networks and special interest groups.
- Seek funding for a public exhibition of the research in order to broaden engagement and knowledge exchange from the research. I hope to creatively present a 360 degree view of brain injury rehabilitation from the perspectives sought during the research.
Doing research with impact – an interview with an expert
Professor of Communications research, Jenny Kitzinger – Cardiff University – winner of the University’s 2013 Celebrating Excellence Award for ‘Outstanding contribution to Innovation and Engagement’ shares her thoughts and advice on conducting research with impact:
JL: How do you do research with impact?
JK: To do research with impact, you have to…, it’s not an add on, it’s not a deliverable, it’s something you have to think about in the conceptualisation, design and delivery. People often think about it as something you do afterwards, after doing the research itself, but it isn’t […]
JL: The way in which people talk about consultation, engagement and impact seem like three different things but the way in which you have just been speaking about it is like it’s all one of the same. How do you see it?
JK: I’d put it all under ‘Dialogue’: you start with a dialogue, you continue with a dialogue and you conclude with a dialogue. And it’s not that you consult and do what they tell you or even agree with them about what is important but you understand their perspectives. As you research you are collecting lots of different perspectives from different families in my case and from professionals. […] The point is that you just keep thinking and your thinking is enriched both through doing the research and constant conversation that’s reflective, its reflective research. Why we ever thought we could do research reflexivity in a bubble with our supervisor as a PhD student…
JL: Thinking about a PhD student what would you advise them, what would your 5 top tips be?
JK: Get involved with research groups, go to different events, don’t isolate yourself in academia. Think beyond the very narrow and old fashioned sense of what the key targets are that academia sometimes sets PhD students – it’s all an old model. It’s a feudal system where you follow in the footsteps of somebody who developed their career probably before the impact agenda was recognised as important or indeed became REF referable […] people need to be able to combine practice, policy involvement, academic study and the PhD is the place to breach those boundaries, not to think ‘well you’re doing a PhD so you have to be as narrow as possible’ and just do a PhD and afterwards you can expand. We need to nurture a new generation that can do this from the outset but it’s a moment of change so PhD students are vulnerable if they do that so I can also see why as a supervisor I’d need to be protective of a student um, but yeah, it’s the consultation event, but consultation isn’t an event it’s a way of being and it’s a process.
JL: For now, what do you think it is realistic for PhD students to be doing?
JK: The practical terms of doing would be a consultation exercise with key stakeholders in the first three to six months of the project, a mid-term review once there is some emerging data with another event but I would also suggest that any PhD student has an informal mentoring relationship with a practitioner and a policy maker or somebody else in the field, preferably two or three where they try and meet every two or three months over a cup of coffee to talk about their findings and get somebody else’s perspective outside of academia. Then, when the thesis is written up I’d have a third and final consultation event which would involve, and you could do it in the context of another conference, try and have an hours slot where you have half an hour to present and half an hour for discussion and I would write that up in the final chapter as an engagement exercise that helped you reflect on the policy implications and future research agendas from your work and do it that way.
We’re not there yet – engagement doesn’t equal impact – it’s all about the evidence
Engagement with the public/stakeholders doesn’t automatically equal or produce ‘impact’. Impact is the effect that these engagement events, articles written, discussions held have on and in practice – the learning, the changes in practice that result from them. The key then to turning engagement into impact in REF terms is the evidence that is produced by your work and activities of engagement. The key lesson learned from the REF cycle this time around was that you had to evidence impact – without evidence, there is no impact.
PhDs are listed in REF submissions, but are not themselves submitted. Nevertheless, we ought to be prepared and able to answer the question – ‘what impact has your research made?’ which could be asked of us by stakeholders and potential employers, including universities. In REF, research impact was measured through its ‘reach’ and ‘significance’, and this does not only mean that if research has ‘reach’ – affecting a large amount of people – then it also has significant impact. Work which has an impact on a small number of people can be just as important.
How do we evidence the impact of our PhD research?
According to RCUK, impact ‘evidence’ can be collected/collated either quantifiably or in forms of testimonials (impact ‘case studies’).
To see examples of impact case studies go to: www.esrc.ac.uk/news-and-events/features-casestudies/index.aspx
A few ideas about how to evidence impact
- Give out post event questionnaires/feedback forms to attendees
- Create an ‘impact folder’ and in it store a log of the engagement activities you conduct and any email correspondence, comments and stories from stakeholders, letters which you have received in response to your work.
- Follow up any comments you get verbally and ask people to tell you more about how they felt about/what they did after your event/hearing about your research – ideally in an email or letter.
- Try and follow citations of your work (easier said than done) and note their usage in other publications (inside and outside of academia). For example, I wrote a research report with Professor Jenny Kitzinger following a study I conducted while I was a practicing physiotherapist, about what was important to people with neurological conditions and their families in long-term care. A year after publication the report was referenced several times in a ‘Guidance to best practice’ document written by the British Society for Rehabilitation Medicine regarding specialist nursing home care for people with complex neurological disability.
Impact doesn’t always happen in the moment. It can take years for the effect of research to become clear or to be made. While your research may not seem like it’s having much impact now – in and over years to come it may well have made a significant contribution, so chart the impact of your work over time.
To see examples of the impact being made by research centres and groups at Cardiff University go to:
For other impact related resources go to: