Public engagement describes the many ways in which the activity and benefits of our research can be shared with the public.
At Edinburgh Napier, we believe in working in partnership with communities. To be relevant, our research has to arise from, and speak to, many different groups and societies. Reaching out to organisations and individuals around our university, schools, health and wellbeing agencies and policy makers creates a crucial difference to the direction of our researchers’ work and how they understand the world – and directly addresses our University aim of transforming communities.
We encourage our researchers to see the bigger picture – why they do it, and why it matters. All our academic staff and research students need to communicate their big ideas so that they can resonate in wider life. We are working hard to embed public engagement in our research culture, so that ideas and projects will reach the people that they can benefit the most and better address the challenges they face.
Thanks to strong community links, much of our research work arises because of requests from external groups who want our help. Recent projects have involved working with Scotland’s deaf community on the role of deaf artists in heritage; designing better birthing centres for families and engaging some of our more deprived populations to help with exploring some of the links between poverty and poor mental health. We’re always keen to hear from organisations who are trying to achieve something new and need support to do it.
So how do we do all this? We specialise in bringing innovative ideas to the table, and thinking hard about how best to engage our partners, drawing on the breadth of academic disciplines at Napier. Where we engage with people it’s usually with a difference: devising a cake-decorating workshop for a group with learning disabilities, or developing a board game for children to encourage them to talk about living with the benefits system. Nothing is off-limits – our researchers might choreograph an interpretive dance and get the audience to discuss what they took from the performance, work with a screenwriter on devising a short film, or help children explore the latest virtual reality technology at a school fair.
Playfulness is a key element. We have a regular platform at the Edinburgh Fringe’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, offering our researchers the chance to set out their ideas and defend them in front of an informed - and occasionally sceptical - public. How about a stand-up comedy show on a research paper? It may not seem that misogyny on social media is a laughing matter, but think again; the best shows make serious points that linger long after the comedy stops, so we partner with the Stand Comedy Club to help our academics take centre stage. In the past, we’ve used a cartoonist to help open up discussions with grassroots communities on the issues that matter most to them, making sure our research and activities are engaging and accessible to everyone.
The formal structures at Edinburgh Napier also help our researchers to achieve their public engagement ambitions. Our full-time Public Engagement Manager, Dawn Smith, works with external groups and ENU researchers to develop ideas. She is assisted by experienced academic public engagement leads based in each of our six schools, who help to steer individual projects. We provide seed funding for engagement projects across the university, with a pot of central funding allocated by the team. And we offer training and support for staff and student researchers to engage meaningfully with different communities.
Finally, as a founding member of the Beltane Public Engagement Network, we work with the other three universities in Edinburgh to create a joined-up approach to engaging with stakeholders across the Lothians and further afield.