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For staff


As hundreds of staff and students prepare to entertain and engage audiences across Cambridge in this year’s Festival of Ideas, we discover how – and why – the University finds creative and meaningful ways to reach out.

Whether you’re into activism, blogging, podcasting or comedy, if you’re keen to communicate your work in discussion with public audiences, there are more ways than ever to engage and inspire. The University’s annual Science Festival and Festival of Ideas provide over a thousand staff and students each year with a platform for sharing a passion for knowledge. And while performers are welcome, public engagement needs collaborators and lifelong learners too.

According to Nicola Buckley, the University’s Head of Public Engagement: “Public engagement describes ways in which the work of higher education can be shared, ‘sharing’ being the operative word. Public engagement is not just about the people beyond universities listening – it’s about getting people involved in the conversation.”

Over the past decade, this emphasis on two-way communication has changed the nature of public engagement itself. What practitioners referred to in the past as PUS (public understanding of science) has given way to the equally ungainly PEST (public engagement with science and technology).

Adopted beyond the confines of university science, the model of engagement increasingly stresses the involvement, opinions and contributions of people outside higher education itself.

Public engagement also shares some of the features of knowledge exchange, where specific organisations, as well as individuals, are engaged for mutual learning and exchanging expertise. With research funders actively encouraging these activities, the supporting context for external engagement is developing all the time.

With a diversity of public engagement activity at Cambridge, it’s unsurprising that researchers’ motives are diverse too. “Researchers may talk about making the world a better place, enhancing their careers, or inspiring learning among others. Some want to increase the quality and impact of their work; others are concerned with being ethical, accountable and transparent – thereby winning support for research and the work of higher education,” says Buckley.

All those active in this area are contributing to the growth of a public engagement community that already involves staff and students, as well as educational, business and other organisations. Everyone can play an important role in making public engagement happen; indeed, it is a community that benefits from the organisational and communications skills of all its members, and a shared commitment to the value of what they are doing.

“In a sense, this marks the development of something that has been around for generations,” says Buckley. “The University has outstanding assets for public engagement – including the University museums, collections and the Botanic Garden. It has a long history of continuing education and publishing, as well as College and student-led activity, and recent developments like online film and audio for channels like YouTube and iTunesU.”

Technology has been a major enabler for public engagement, and whether through online and social media, or at live events, most communications activities now include opportunities for feedback and debate, generating possibilities for mutual learning for everyone involved.


David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, is involved in a range of activities designed to inspire interest and engagement with everyday problems of uncertainty. Casting his work as ‘public understanding of science’, he says: “We try to take a view of the subject that extends beyond the application of probability and statistics, acknowledging that there are deeper uncertainties that cannot easily be put into a formal framework.”

Spiegelhalter has developed a unique set of public communications activities that complement his research, from mass participation experiments and newspaper columns to TV appearances, social media and outreach activity with schools. He has even been spotted trying to negotiate the wobbly big red balls on BBC One’s Winter Wipeout. Combining world-class research, public service and media work is not an approach everyone can emulate without slipping up – and his contribution is all the more notable for that.

Dr Peter Wothers, who gave the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 2012, and Professor Mary Beard, whose latest documentary for BBC 2 tackled Caligula, are also experts in the art of communicating their subject to diverse audiences.


Perhaps less obvious is the range of public consultation work taking place at Cambridge, but consultation processes are going on all the time in research fields, often in tandem with wider policy exercises.

Professor Bill Sutherland has pioneered a method for consulting widely among academics, policy-makers, and external organisation representatives to identify key questions for research in conservation, science policy and poverty alleviation.

Dr Robert Doubleday, Director of the University’s Centre for Science and Policy, has reviewed public consultations on issues from geo-engineering and synthetic biology to nanotechnology and stem cell research. Common themes showed that research is often conditionally welcomed, as is the participation of business. People also want to see wider society involved in setting public research agendas, and research focused on clear social needs. In these consultations, people tended to prefer step-by-step changes to tackle societal challenges, and to be sceptical about the value of high-tech solutions to complex social and environmental problems. Consultees also stressed regulation of emerging technologies as well as their use in research and innovation.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which commissioned the study, used it to inform resources for researchers to carry out public dialogues. Dr Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley and Dr Nino Nikolovski then organised a bio-energy public dialogue regarding future scenarios in June 2013, with feedback gathered.

“While researchers are encouraged to become involved in ‘outreach’, consultation and dialogue work shows how any university also needs to respond to the demand for ‘in-reach’ from the public, private and third sectors,” says Buckley. “This is something which requires care, focus and attention – but there are opportunities in doing so for research, teaching and knowledge exchange.”


Indeed, more opportunities are opening up for collaborative research. In conservation, heritage, languages and beyond, researchers are collaborating with partners in the public, private and third sectors.

One Cambridge academic who is doing this is archaeologist Dr Carenza Lewis, who over the past 18 months has led a publicly funded scheme matching archaeological and historical researchers with community groups. Through the scheme, Cambridge Community Heritage, ten researchers have supported 27 groups in East Anglia who have received grants in excess of £200,000 to investigate, preserve and share a wide range of heritage projects.

Thanks to the scheme, several villages have carried out community digs with researchers, contributing data to University research into medieval settlements as well as enhancing community life. “I have lived in this village since 1972 and have never seen the village come together so united in one common pursuit,” one participant on a recent dig reported.

Another well developed collaborative initiative with knowledge exchange and public engagement aspects is the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, involving the University in partnership with research-based conservation organisations.

An engaged university needs to draw on the talents and commitment of students as well as staff and researchers. There are strong traditions of student volunteering in Cambridge and further afield. Students have also been exploring other forms of social action, including social enterprise, collaborative learning with external organisations as part of the curriculum, and a range of vacation opportunities including supported internship programmes.

Organisations such as Student Community Action, the Student Hub, the Humanitarian Centre and many more work to facilitate opportunities for students to learn in tandem with external organisations as part of their experience at University.

Being one of the great centres for learning in the world gives the University and its members opportunities to originate and participate in enriching and rewarding public engagement and knowledge exchange activities. These can generate financial and public support for the University, and help its members to disseminate knowledge and form new partnerships.

For the University to fulfil the potential of the knowledge contributions it can make to society locally, nationally and internationally requires a range of enabling public engagement activities. Buckley is optimistic about the future: “Reviewing some of the good practice already developed and looking ahead it’s encouraging to consider the great opportunities – alongside the challenges – in increasingly embedding public engagement practices with the pursuit of excellence in research and teaching.”