‘Being engaged’ is not an event, but a way of working

Rethinking Policy Impact
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Demands for engagement with citizens and service users are increasingly mainstreamed into academic research, especially in my own field of health research, where ‘patient and public involvement’ is a requirement for some funding schemes, and certain journals (Erikainen et al., 2022). Done well, engagement has exceptional potential to improve social science research and increase its relevance to policy and practice. What is less often discussed, is that done badly, it risks harming vulnerable populations and discrediting academic researchers as self-interested and exploitative. How can we create the conditions for the former, and make the latter less likely?

Good practice in engaging publics

A woman smiling for the camera
Dr Ellen Stewart

I don’t want to advocate for a particular set of tools or practices to bring lived experience into research (such as currently popular options are co-research, citizen’s juries or Delphi surveys) and nor do I want to rank potential approaches via popular typologies of participation. Indeed, the policing of boundaries between different ways of engaging non-academic communities in our research, often a feature of debate and commentary in this area, masks what are often shared goals (Green & Melendez-Torres, 2022; Locock & Boaz, 2019). Instead, I would advocate for broader and deeper cultural shifts towards engaged research. ‘Being engaged’ is not an event, but a way of working. Because lived experience (of citizens and service users, but also in general) is not just diverse but is also dynamic, we need to nurture ongoing dialogue with the communities we are researching, avoiding a ‘smash and grab’ approach to extracting and inserting their objectified knowledge into our research as just another data source.

Engaged research should challenge the questions and frames, tacit and explicit, that we bring into our work.

This approach to research is being done brilliantly already, by many academics. The Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health has centred engaged research in its work, as has the Coproduction Collective, originally based at UCL. An excellent recent example of engaged research with pathways to impact ‘baked in’ is the Reprofutures project on healthcare and social support for adults with variations in sex characteristics, academically led by Dr Charlotte Jones. The project describes itself as co-created, is transparent about the engagement that has taken place, and produced a careful, attractively-presented and accessible set of resources for different audiences. Such work demonstrates that there is no intrinsic conflict between engaged research and impactful research.

The mindset required for engaged research is not new, but an extension of our existing academic curiosity to new sites and groups. We know how to learn by engaging – conferences, yes, but also reading and listening and discussing. Publicly-engaged research requires us to broaden those engagements beyond academia, and beyond formal knowledge products. The drawback of advocating engaged research as an approach, is that it can’t be easily packaged with a ‘how to’ guide for promotional purposes. It requires time to build relationships, a particular set of interpersonal skills, and an underlying respect for and curiosity about non-academic knowledge (Erikainen et al., 2022). All of these take time and are easier for those with a degree of job security – both are sadly limited in the contemporary academy.

Taking diversity seriously in engaged research

If we really are trying to offer meaningful influence to communities through our engaged research, we must pay more attention to questions of diversity within the communities with which we engage (as well as, of course, within academia itself. Diverse engagement isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card for an academy that remains overwhelmingly white and privileged). This isn’t about statistical representativeness – engagement does not conform to the logics of survey sampling – but about taking a considered approach to whose voices are in our Zoom rooms, and the power dynamics that result. One of the goals of our public engagement in SIPHER has been to engage people adversely affected by health inequalities, respectfully and ethically. It’s a sound goal, but risks researchers engaging tokenistically with potentially vulnerable people. Our solution in SIPHER has been to work in partnership with local voluntary organisations both to recruit and to support our Panels. It surely isn’t perfect, but our local partner organisations helped us to sensitively recruit more diverse groups of people than a simple ‘cold calling’ approach would have. Our Panel members have faced – and in many cases continue to face – significant challenges with their employment, health, and housing. Ongoing support from partner organisations has enabled our Panel members to stay engaged with the research despite the ups and downs of their lives in the pandemic. Everything about this approach costs money and time, and, even with a relatively generous budget for expenses, thankyou honorariums and equipment, we still should probably have costed in more.


Current approaches to public engagement employ a mixture of carrots (eg funding), sticks (eg journal requirements) and sermons (training), but focus heavily on individualised approaches to engagement. In our book The Impact Agenda, we conclude with suggestions for a more evidence-informed research impact agenda, and our recommendations focus on institutional fixes, not, for example, individual training for researchers. Among other calls, we suggest that ‘universities might develop systems of recognition which acknowledge not only academic grant income, publication metrics and fortuitous examples of demonstrable impact but also academic efforts to engage with and to do good in the world’. Our research suggested that the value of public engagement is widely understood to be more diffuse than the instrumental models that underpin impact case studies.

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

I don’t encounter many academics who have no interest in engaging with diverse lived experience on their research interests (I have met some, and I have no suggestions for converting this cadre.) I encounter many more well-intentioned academics who are exhausted, disillusioned, and recognise the lack of incentives to undertake this time-consuming, risky work in their research (Boylan et al., 2019). So how do we support people who want to do engagement well, without just adding another box for them to tick or metaphorical stick to beat them with within impossible workloads?

Three suggestions for starters:

  • Train researchers for humility and to recognise the partiality of their own academic expertise;
  • Build institutional capacity for engagement: this requires time and job security for researchers as much as training courses;
  • Improve incentives for engaged research, including funding to do it well (including payment for participants).

Dr Ellen Stewart is Chancellor’s Fellow and Senior Lecturer, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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