12 December 2011
The AHRC Public Engagement Survey 2011
A summary of results
See the AHRC website for presentations given and topics addressed at the Thursday 27th October AHRC meeting on Public Engagement.
How can academics, researchers and professionals in the arts and humanities and the wider cultural sector engage the public in innovative and meaningful ways? How can they realise the benefits of public engagement - for their benefit, their students’, their organisations’, and that of the public itself?
The AHRC is held a one-day event in central London on the 27th October that explored these and other questions, examining both the strategic and the practical challenges facing those working in the arts and humanities and with the help of delegates explored some practical steps towards overcoming the challenges and grasping the opportunities.
The event also included a session on an upcoming AHRC call on public and community engagement (Research for Community Heritage), part of the Connected Communities programme. In addition, the results of the 2011 AHRC survey on public engagement in the arts and humanities were presented for the first time.
Speakers included Professor Sarah Churchwell, (Professor of Public Understanding of the Humanities at UEA), Professor Mark Llewellyn (Strathclyde University), Sophie Duncan (Deputy Director of the NCCPE) and Philip Pothen (AHRC), among others.
The AHRC Public Engagement Survey 2011
The AHRC ran a public engagement survey in March and April 2011 to gather information on arts and humanities researchers’ understanding of and activities in the area of public engagement as a means of supporting and promoting national and institutional goals in public engagement and, through them, the aspirations of researchers themselves.
1. A summary of survey respondents
A total of 611 respondents completed the survey, 49.4% female and 47.3% male (with the remainder not answering the question). More than four fifths (82.3%) were full-time (defined as working 35 hours or more per week), with 17.7% part-time.
Just over a half of all respondents were under 40 years of age (51.9%), with 47% over 40, with the remainder not wanting to say. 36.8% have been in academia for between one and five years, 18% between six and nine years, 13.7% between 10 and 14 years and 27% for 15 years and more. 3.8% have been in academia for a year or less.
There was an even distribution of the level at which respondents were in their research careers, with 28% saying they were ‘Lecturer/researcher/fellow’, 23.7% ’a Reader or Senior Lecturer’, 23.7% PhD students, 16.2% Professors or above, and 8.3% Junior fellows or Assistant researchers.
Nearly two-thirds described themselves as being in involved in ‘Research and teaching’, 27.3% solely involved in research (including PhDs), 3.1% in teaching only, and 4.9% in management or administration.
When asked who funded their research, 30.4% said AHRC, with 18.4% saying their institution/HEFCE/QR funding and 2.6% ESRC, 2.5% the British Academy and 2.5% another Research Council.
The disciplines represented by the respondents were in the following proportions:
English Literature 11.9
Modern Languages 8.3
Art History 3.3
Classics and Ancient History 3.1
2. Respondents’ understanding of public engagement
The opening question of the survey was one asking for a ‘free-form’ answer – ie. not a tick box. Most answers could be gathered under three main headings:
1. One-way model. Many respondents (around a quarter) understood PE to be concerned with a one-way flow of information, knowledge and expertise, ‘transferring knowledge and ideas from the academy to the general public’, ‘outreach of popular findings,’ the ‘dissemination of research findings’, ‘making information available, etc. Some people revealed a slightly paternalistic approach to PE suggesting it was about ‘educating the public,’ ‘giving people in the public new ideas to think about’ and so on, although this was relatively uncommon among respondents.
2. ‘One-way plus’. Around a quarter of respondents understood PE to be about dissemination but with the interests, views and concerns of ‘the public’ being of central importance to the relationship. One example of this approach would be the following: ‘Convey the findings of arts and humanities research to the general public in a manner which is relevant and interesting to their concerns and experiences.’ The approach, which emphasises ‘relevance’ and the ‘needs’ of the public, suggests that some thinking has taken place about what the public wants or needs from researchers, and what this might mean for the nature of the relationship between researchers and the public.
3. Two-way dialogue. Nearly a half of respondents understood PE to be about exchange, interaction, engagement, partnership, dialogue, two-way flow (of information, knowledge etc), and even collaborating, with the public. Some indicated the benefits to researchers of engaging in this process, with a few seeing it as an opportunity to ‘learn from those outside the academy.’ Some went even further and explicitly referred to it as a means of ‘taking seriously the university’s responsibility’ to share resources.
There were a few scattered – and usually pejorative - responses, including one who said PE was ‘an idea dreamt up solely to enforce obedience among academics’ while another said that it ‘means pandering to the media and politicians.’
Asked to gauge the importance of engaging with a list of public groups, 42.2% thought ‘the non-specialist public generally’ were very important, 35.1% documentary and programme makers, 34.8% policy makers and 29% schools and school teachers, with journalists (both general and arts and humanities – 27.2% and 29.9%), NGOs (18.9%) and ‘young people outside of school’ (18.5%).
Nearly a third (32.1%) found the non-specialist public easiest to talk to about their research, with others being schools and school teachers (14.2%), journalists (12.8%) and policy makers (7.4%). Reasons given were that ‘they are already interested and may even initiate the contact’ (33.4%), ‘my work is relevant to them’ (18.7%) and ‘they’re the most rewarding/fun group to work with’, suggesting a pragmatism in people’s motivations for approaching public groups.
Hardest groups to engage were ‘industry/business community’ (34.7%) and policy-makers (20.5%) because ‘they have ‘preconceived ideas/misconceptions’ (19.5%),‘they are not easily accessible’ (15.4%) and ‘my work isn’t relevant to them’ (15.4%).
Activities most commonly undertaken in public engagement are:
giving public lectures (70.1% have done this at least once in the last year)
taking part in an institutional open day (66.3%),
taking part in a public event/open day/dialogues (62.4%)
writing for the public (61.5%)
working with teachers/schools (52.4%)
working closely with a museum/gallery (50.2%)
At the other end of the scale 17.2% had judged competitions, 24.7% had held public exhibitions related to their research, 29.3% had engaged with NGOs, 30.1% had been interviewed on radio, 31.3% had been interviewed by a newspaper journalist, 32.1% had engaged with policymakers, 34.7% had consulted the public for the benefit of their research, and 37.6% had been involved in a public performance relating to their research. Many reported having done these activities more than five times in the previous year – the most common activities being: asking the public for content for their research (9.5%), working closely with a museum/gallery (9.2%), giving public lectures (9%) and consulting the public (8.5%).
When asked what aspect of their research they considered most important to convey in their PE activities more than half (53.9%) said the ‘relevance of arts and humanities to everyday life’, while 41.9% said ‘the enjoyment of the arts and humanities’, 36.4% thought the findings of their research, and 26.1% thought the social and ethical implications of their research. The research process itself (18.3%) scored lowest.
3. Opportunities and challenges
The main reasons respondents gave for engaging with the non-specialist public were: to ‘contribute to public debates about the value of arts and humanities research’ (18.3%), followed by various forms of awareness-raising: to ensure the public is better informed by art and humanities (17.2%), raising awareness about a particular subject (14.1%) and raising awareness of the arts and humanities generally (16.7%).
Asked about the drawbacks of engaging with the public, almost half (43.7%) said there were no drawbacks to doing so. 16.5% said it ‘takes up time that is better used on research’, 10% said that it can ‘send the wrong messages’. Other responses included: ‘failing to get a response’, ‘media over-simplification’, ‘structures not currently in place’, ‘being misunderstood by the public, etc.
Nearly a third (30.4%) said it was very important to them to engage with the public ‘in relation to the other things that you have to do in your working life’; a similar number (30.3%) said it was ‘fairly important’, 18.3% said ‘equally important’ and only 2.6% said not at all important, with 18.3% saying it was not very important.
More than half (59.1%) wanted to spend more time undertaking PE activities, with another 35.8% content with the time they currently spend.
Agreement was expressed with the following statements:
Engagement with non-specialist audiences is personally rewarding - nearly 85% (84.9) agreed or strongly agreed with this proposition
Engaging the public can help researchers forge new contacts to enhance their research - 50.5% agreed, with 27.1% strongly doing so
I would be keen to take part in a PE activity that was organised by someone else – 78.3% agreed or strongly agreed
I would need help to develop a PE activity around my research - 48.4% agreed or strongly agreed with this
Funders of arts and humanities research should help researchers with their PE activities - 42.9% agree and another 31.4% strongly doing so. Less than 8% disagreed with this proposition
Researchers have a moral duty to engage with non-specialist audiences - 32.1% agreed with a further, 23.6% strongly doing so
Public engagement could enhance my career - more than two-thirds agreed with this (67.3%), and 12% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Among the statements that found general disagreement were the following:
I don’t have time to engage with non-specialist audiences - 61.8% agreed or strongly disagreed, and 16.2% agreed or strongly agreed
Engaging with the public is best done by... trained professionals (61.7%)... senior researchers (77.8%)
My research is too specialised to make much sense to a non-specialist audience - 78.6% disagreed or strongly did so
There are no personal benefits for me to engage with non-specialists groups (77.8%)
The statement that received the most equivocal response was the following:
Arts and humanities researchers who communicate a lot are not well regarded by their researchers – 29.6% neither agreed nor disagreed with this, while disagreement (both strong and otherwise) outweighed agreement (both strong and otherwise) by 5.4% (36.5% against 31.1%)
Nearly half of all respondents (46.6%) felt that it was fairly difficult for researchers to get involved in PE activities; 35.8% said it was fairly easy and 4.4% said it was very easy, with 8% saying it was very difficult.
Nearly three quarters (73.1%) said that they thought of themselves as being fairly well equipped (52.5%) and very well equipped (20.6%) to engage with non-specialist public, while just 2.5% thought themselves as being not at all equipped. 22.9% thought of themselves as being not very well equipped.
On the question of training, 59.4% said they had never received training in PE, while 22.6% said they had received media training, 13.4% training on speaking to non-specialist audiences, 12.9% on writing for non-specialist audiences, while 16.8% said they had received some kind of training relating to engaging with schools and schoolchildren.
4. Obstacles and incentives
Responding to a question about those factors that would encourage greater involvement in PE activities, respondents indicated that relief from other workload was the most important factor ( 44.7% saying this would encourage them ‘a great deal’), followed by ‘if it was easier to get funding’ ( 42.2%), ‘if the REF encompassed it’ (38.8), ‘if it brought money into the department (38.4%), ‘if it was easier to organise activities’ (38.3%), ‘if it helped more with my academic career’ (36.6%), and ‘if my line manager/head of department gave me more support/encouragement’ (25.9%).
Delegates were asked to express in their own words what would encourage them to get involved in PE activities that engage the non-specialist public with their research. Time, money, greater recognition and support, career progression, were among the answers given – and reflected in other responses in the survey – but among further responses were the following: more responsive journalism that was actually interest in the arts and humanities and not just the demands of particular stories, greater political and media support (against a prevailing narrative of the arts and humanities not being entirely worthy of public support), greater confidence, links between HE and the wider cultural sector, mentoring, and so on.
Asked to do the same for the factors that they felt were preventing them from engaging the non-academic public, the answers were similar – ie lack of time, recognition, support, resources, and so on. Others mentioned that posts were awarded on the basis of research, teaching and administration and not PE, lack of experience, lack of confidence, finding an appropriate project, ongoing debates about the value of PE, the time it takes to build relationships with communities, relevance of specific research interests, insufficient access to the public, discouragement from some elements of university management, colleagues’ ‘continuing elitism and snobbery’, and so on.
In terms of the support felt by respondents’ immediate environment, the picture was generally a very positive one, with around two thirds feeling that their colleagues were either very supportive (21.4%) or fairly supportive (44.3%) and only 2.8% feeling that there was no one who supported them. There were similar results for the support felt by institutions generally with nearly two thirds feeling that they were very supportive (18.7%) or fairly supportive (46.3%), 20.6% felt their institutions were not particularly supportive, while 2.6% felt they were not at all supportive.
Respondents were asked to say what would be the most valuable way that the AHRC could help with their PE activities. 41.4% said that funding would be the best way, while 19.3% suggested brokering relationships, while 13% said PE training, 8.9% said networking events, 4.6% said publicity and 2.5% support materials. See more details >