Over the last 10 years, the pressure on university researchers to undertake a broader range of tasks has increased. Notable additional requirements include involvement in research impact and engagement with non-academic organisations – for a range of reasons. If the potential of the industrial strategy is to be realised, it is important that researchers are appropriately supported in their engagement work.

But researchers, especially those who remember the pre-impact days, are feeling pulled in different directions. And I believe that in many cases they have good reason to feel this way.

One challenge is that not everything they are expected to do in their research time is actually research. Typically, they are now expected to engage with a range of constituencies including business and/or patients, museums, government, policymakers, according to their particular research area. Some researchers take to engaging with people in different sectors very well and achieve great things. But not all. For some, this engagement work feels alien. It can make them feel uncomfortable. They are not sure how to go about it. Perhaps they are not the right people to do it? Why take them away from what they are good at?

Universities as a whole, as well their constituent departments and schools, consist of a range of people with different strengths. Some are research stars, some outstanding teachers, some brilliant practitioners, others excel at engagement work, and some are able to shine on two or more fronts. Surely there is the potential to create teams of academics with each person playing to their own strengths, including engagement? Surely this would help universities to play a major role in addressing some of the big challenges faced by society?

What I have only rarely seen in any of the three universities I’ve worked at since research impact was introduced, is ‘multi-functional’ academic teams consisting of a researcher and an ‘engager’ (and maybe an academic practitioner too) collaborating with external organisations to develop impact case studies or collaborative research grants. Are universities missing a trick here? But what’s in it for the staff who are not researchers?

There are various support mechanisms that I believe need to be in place within their university for academics to engage successfully with organisations in different sectors. These include, senior leadership, a strategy, and time. But ensuring that engagement activities are valued by the university by including them among the criteria for promotion is also key and this is what I consider here.

Traditionally in universities – even teaching-led ones, it is research achievements that have been perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be required to gain promotion, with progression in other areas seeming to be more difficult. This has started to change in recent years, with new career tracks being introduced within several universities, including for engagement. I welcome this and believe that everyone should be recognised and rewarded for their achievements with the possibility of becoming a Professor of Engagement or Enterprise or Teaching or Practice as well as of Research, as appropriate. The route to success along each of these tracks should be equally rigorous. Those holding the title of Professor should be held in equal regard, regardless of their career track.

For engagement, the outputs might include sustained partnerships for a research centre, department or the university, inter-sector collaborations, new types of opportunities for students, or new programmes. Peer-reviewed papers could describe the novelty of the approaches taken, challenges faced, successes achieved and suggest further approaches that might be tried. Income to the university might be in the form of student fees, matched funding for collaborative research or consultancy payments.

In future posts, I will consider some of the other factors that I believe need to be in place for academics to be successful engagers.

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Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

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