Research institutions are best placed to support researchers with public engagement

We’re trying new ways to support researchers to deliver the best possible public engagement. Rebecca Jones and Georgia Bladon explain how.

Woman speaks at a workshop

Credit: Michael Bowles / Wellcome

Through the new pilot programmes, our partner institutions will be able to use their award to scale projects and test larger ideas.

When researchers lead public engagement, the benefits for communities and health research can be transformative. But for public engagement to be most valuable, it needs dedicated time, expertise and support.

This is where research institutions can drive change. Through their commitment to institution-wide engagement strategies, they provide training programmes, seed funding and engagement platforms for researchers to come up with ideas, test their plans and build audience and community relationships.

So where should Wellcome’s support come in and how can we best add value for our researchers?

Funding from Wellcome

Research Enrichment: Public Engagement is one answer. It supports Wellcome grantholders to engage the public with their research.

While it leads to some innovative and impactful work, we know it has limitations:

  • it can be hard to use the funding to accomplish both aims of the scheme: build skills and develop high-quality engagement programmes
  • the scheme is post-award, so engagement can feel as if it’s not part of conceiving, delivering and sharing research
  • the scheme requires additional work from the researcher to complete an application
  • as a funder, we often don’t know enough about a researcher’s local, institutional or academic context to support or judge the value of highly specific projects 
  • the excellent projects we do fund often stand alone, disconnected from a wider engagement strategy that could achieve broader impact. 

In some ways it’s unsurprising that application rates are lower than we expected (5-10 per round). So we want to find new ways to support researcher-led engagement. One of these is a series of pilots which capitalise on the role that research institutions can play in mobilising and supporting researchers with their engagement work.

Support through research institutions: two UK pilot projects

The Institutional Research Engagement Fund (IREF) will move the balance of decision-making from Wellcome to those who understand their researchers and local context best.

We are working in partnership with the University of Oxford and the Scottish Public Engagement Network (ScotPEN) to trial this new approach.

Both will award £500,000 of Wellcome funding to public engagement projects led by Wellcome grantholders in those institutions for the period July 2019 – June 2020. We chose these partners based on their institutional culture, the potential for growth in their engagement portfolios and their current levels of Wellcome-funded research – for example, Oxford is the single largest recipient of Wellcome research funding.

Using previously established small seed funds combined with advice and support mechanisms, our pilot institutions will be able to use their IREF award to scale projects and test larger ideas. This will allow researchers to build skills and invest more sustainably in relationships with communities and partners.  

As a result, we expect to see less repetition of engagement platforms and formats, with our institutional partners able to better shape evolving relationships, connect dots and generate outcomes greater than the sum of their parts.

And we think we’ll see a broader range of researchers apply and access public engagement funding through targeted communications strategies and support services.

Our pilot with ScotPEN will also explore funding for joint programmes between institutions, something which is beyond the scope of the Research Enrichment: Public Engagement scheme. This will help further develop a collaborative community of engaged researchers across Scotland.  

Support for international researchers: the Africa pilot project

For our international pilot, we are collaborating with the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and the Departmental for International Development (DFID). We will provide seed funds for early-career researchers who are part of the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science Initiative in Africa.

The scheme was co-designed by the three partners to:

  • build on engagement capacity in Africa
  • broaden the opportunities for African researchers to adopt more people-centred approaches and lead innovative public engagement programmes within the communities and populations they serve.

With £600,000 funding from Wellcome and DFID, the AAS will manage the implementation of the fund. As a leading pan-African organisation, they will also be responsible for the decision making – who will receive the grants and why. The AAS are much better placed than Wellcome to decide what good capacity strenghtening and public engagement in Africa looks like. This will also enable them to embed the scheme into their strategy for supporting researchers across Africa. 

Together with our two partners, we will continue to evaluate and improve the scheme as it develops over two rounds.

We want to hear what you think

We’re excited to see the results of our new delegated decision-making approach.

  • Will we improve attitudes and increase the visibility and autonomy of public engagement teams across our pilot programmes?
  • Can our model help embed engagement at a strategic level and facilitate bigger and bolder institutional decisions?
  • Can we enhance the influence of professional networks and accelerate best practice sharing and learning?

For Wellcome, this is one more step in our journey towards supporting larger programmes that mobilise knowledge and skills, and enable people closer to the action to make decisions. As we do this, we’ll be moving away from more intricate project-based funding and towards enhancing our partnerships.

We’re excited about where this can go and what other funders we can bring on board. Together, we’ll assess the balance of influence and support needed to achieve effective ecosystems of engagement within our research community.

If you have thoughts or reflections to share, do get in touch. Tweet @wellcometrust or leave comments on the Wellcome Facebook page.

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