When the Public Engagement Unit was set up as part of the Catalyst funding in 2012 our role was to embed a positive culture of public engagement with research within the University of Bath. But institutions like universities aren’t the only component of academic life. Conferences are also an important part of research culture and we know that many academics identify strongly with their discipline, which is better represented by a conference than an institution.
So, we here at the Public Engagement Unit have set ourselves the challenge, could we embed a positive culture of public engagement in an academic conference instead of an institution? We wanted to explore this at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) 2020.
The National Astronomy Meeting
NAM is an annual conference sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) which brings together astronomy researchers from across the UK and in 2020 celebrates their 200th anniversary. In honour of William Herschel, the first president of the RAS and his astronomer sister Caroline, who both lived and worked in Bath, NAM2020 in July is being held right on our doorstep.
There are several factors that make the NAM2020 a perfect testbed to apply the accumulated learning from the work to embed a positive culture of public engagement within universities over the last 12 years. Firstly, across the astronomy discipline and within the community of astronomy researchers that make up the NAM there are significant pockets of engagement practice such as the Starlit Skies community engagement project and several STFC public engagement fellows. Secondly, there is a senior-level commitment to public engagement within NAM, RAS and the Department of Physics at the University of Bath who are organising NAM2020, providing leadership that was one of the essential features of successful embedding projects since 2008. Finally, the community of researchers are receptive to public engagement and already share their practice with each other through the conference.
What struck us most at the Public Engagement Unit were the parallels with the University of Bath's experience of public engagement before we received Research Council UK (now UK Research and Innovation) Catalyst funding. How could we resist this opportunity to apply our experience into a new setting?
Why the Public Engagement Unit?
Being a well-established Public Engagement Unit, we are fairly confident in the approach we currently take to sustaining a positive culture of engagement at the University of Bath. We like to think of our approach as being agile and able to respond to the ever-evolving nature or research and engagement culture across the higher education sector.
Also, we are keen to build on learning from the wider sector and share our experiences to help advance practice. For example, we know the NCCPE’s edge tool provides a useful guide for embedding public engagement within institutions, but how would the tool apply to a conference? What elements of learning can we apply to a conference and what will we have to adapt to meet this new context?
To start this process, we took stock of our learning from embedding public engagement at the University of Bath. Over the years we have settled on four main strands of work: Doing Public Engagement, Learning about Public Engagement, Celebrating Public Engagement and Leading Public Engagement.
NAM2020 gives us the opportunity to test our ideas and approach in a different context.
What does that look like in practice?
Our first step has been to get involved in the organising structures of the conference. Each NAM is organised by a Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the host institution, and we've been working and supporting the LOC in the Department of Physics. Through the LOC we were have been able to include a public engagement category in the session proposal call allowing us to surface existing practice within the NAM community. We have been working with the LOC to review proposals for NAM and get an idea for what engagement activities NAM delegates wanted to take part in and what engagement practice they wanted to share with other delegates.
This is a really important step in our process as it will help develop our programme of work, which will help shape how we can best support these conference sessions and what training, engagement and recognition opportunities, key processes that we know help embed public engagement, would be most relevant to the delegates
We are also working with a number of different stakeholders including members of RAS, the University of Bath press team and Edge arts team, the Science, Technology and Facilities Council (who have funded our work for this conference) and others. Balancing the interests of these stakeholders will also be a key part of successfully embedding a positive culture of public engagement into NAM2020.
Our next step will be to start scoping out the differences between conferences and institutions and identify any assumptions we have about embedding public engagement which might not hold true for a conference setting.
Rob Cooper is a Public Engagement Officer at the University of Bath