Gisèle Yasmeen, Vice President Partnerships, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
Surrounded by the pageantry of Church House – a beautiful historical building which is now a conference facility in the courtyard behind Westminster Abbey – approximately 250 researchers from across disciplines, community partners, funding agencies and international participants gathered to discuss the whys, wherefores and best practices of public engagement with respect to research from Dec. 7-8.
Engage 2010 was organized by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, which is an initiative of the Higher Education Funding Council of England, an arm’s length agency that funds post-secondary institutions in England with similar agencies in place for the rest of the UK. The NCCPE has produced a manifesto on public engagement, to which several institutions have adhered as well as identifying “beacons” of public engagement in regions throughout the country who serve as centres of excellence and best practice at the institutional level. In many ways, the Beacons initiative, launched in 2006, resembled SSHRC’s Knowledge Impacts in Society pilot which was developed around the same time and similarly is about developing insititutional capacity to engage with various communities across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
The first day of Engage 2010 began with a panel chaired by Kathy Sykes, Professor of Science and Society at the University of Bristol and included contributions from Alan Thorpe, Chair of Research Councils UK and Terry Ryall, CEO for “v,” the National Young Volunteers Service (UK), who set the stage for the next two days. Dr. Thorpe spoke to the vision, rationale, benefits and strategy for public engagement by the UK granting councils. The breaking news is that a “concordat” (accord) was signed by all the granting agencies on the evening of Dec. 7 regarding public engagement. Like other such accords in the past, these statements are of huge symbolic importance and often lead to concrete incentives and changes within the research milieu.
I was delighted to share the stage with Professor Sir David Watson, an historian, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton and founder of the well known Community University Partnerships Programme there, and now Principal of Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He has been a visionary leader in the world of research and higher education in the UK and the two of us were called upon to sum up the major outcomes of the conference as well as speak to emerging trends. One of the firm conclusions of Engage 2010 was that public engagement in its many guises, is now a firm feature of the UK landscape and also has a strong foothold in many other parts of the world, including the Global South. Professor Watson and Canadian community-engaged research pioneer Professor Budd Hall (University of Victoria) spoke at a workshop, which I had the honour of chairing, on the international work they are doing in the Global South, including collaboration on the creation of the Global Alliance for Community Engaged Research.
This gathering was held at a particularly sensitive time in the UK as the country prepared for a crucial parliamentary vote on Dec. 9 related to funding for post-secondary education, further to the recommendations of the Browne report. Demonstrations took place in the streets all week culminating in the decision by Parliament by a slim majority of 21 votes (323 yeas and 302 nays) to significantly increase tuition fees, which is being met with vociferous protests in the streets of London.