How do we support research engagement?

Joann CattlinJoann Cattlin is project manager on the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project, an ARC Linkage project at the University of Melbourne.

Building engagement is central to her role in coordinating the team of 20 researchers and 17 partners across four countries. The project has achieved significant collaboration with partners and has generated international interest from other researchers, industry and community.

She has worked as a researcher and project manager for the last 10 years and was previously an academic librarian. Joann received a Universitas 21 scholarship to undertake this study tour and is conducting ongoing research on the link between project management approaches and engagement. Joann is presenting case studies from her trip at the ARMS conference in Adelaide. You can find her on Twitter at @jocattlin.


Shape Lab at MoMA, by Michael Nagle and MoMAlearning on Flickr.

Research engagement is a government priority in many countries. While the requirements differ, there is a growing body of research and practice that can help inform how we respond.

In June 2019, I visited eight universities in Canada and the USA and met with 65 managers and academics to find out what  how research engagement was supported in North America.

North American context

In Canada and the USA, the drivers for research engagement are a combination of funder requirements, mission-driven community engagement and growth of research partnerships. In Canada, research engagement – or knowledge mobilisation – has been a requirement of major government grants for over 10 years. In the USA, the National Science Foundation is the only funder requiring engagement or broader impacts.

Universities have developed a range of responses to support researchers and there are also networks and communities of practice like Research Impact Canada and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts.

I met with research managers and academics within central research offices, faculties and research centres across a range of disciplines, which provided me with a detailed snapshot of what engagement looks like in practice. I was interested in the way universities structured support within both centralised and devolved structures, and how they addressed the common challenge of connecting researchers and professionals across complex and often siloed organisation.

Four key areas emerged:

  • Research engagement is about more than responding to funder requirements.
  • Responding to researchers’ needs.
  • What does research engagement look like?
  • Research is changing.

Research engagement is about more than responding to funder requirements

A strong and consistent message was that it is important for universities to think about research engagement holistically – as part of the research life-cycle and as a strategic opportunity for the university. While funders and government requirements can be the drivers for action, providing leadership and practical support for research engagement is fundamental to building researcher capacity, capturing research outputs and enabling quality research. Universities promote their research success stories at the end of a project, but as one manager told me, “Don’t we have an obligation in helping create these stories?”.

Another researcher reflected that without targeted support the benefits of engagement activities can be lost, “On their own, researchers are doing great things, but it’s not captured, not supported and not built into the way research is managed”.

At one university, the staff in the centralised engagement unit focused significant time on developing relationships with community organisations, building trust and understanding their interests. This deep engagement not only led to new research partnerships but enabled greater understanding of the process of engagement, which then informed training, online resources and event support. They also captured the experiences and outcomes of engagement to create a repository of stories that added another dimension to the traditional marketing approaches to communicating research success, by providing the story of how and why research happened and the impacts it achieved.

In order to provide evidence of their engagement, universities need to have access to the stories. More importantly, they should harness the expertise and learning these stories can provide and reinvest this in researcher training and professional services.

Responding to researchers’ needs

Most of the universities I visited were responding to the needs of their researchers and building support from the ground up. While research engagement was a long-standing strategic goal for most, some had undertaken reviews to identify what supports were needed to achieve this and their responses reflected their individual organisation structures and research activity.

Some had developed faculty support roles in disciplines where researchers needed hands on support that helped develop partnership research, write and execute impact plans and connect with other faculties and services within the university. An education faculty at one US university has an office that provides a central contact point between external organisations, such as schools and community, and the faculty.The office builds relationships with schools to understand their needs and problems, assists them in accessing relevant research and brokers partnerships or participation in research projects. Researchers receive support to identify suitable schools for research and develop relationships with participants that facilitates two way sharing of knowledge. This approach not only provides efficiencies for the faculty in negotiating research activities with participants but supports schools to develop the capacity to engage with and use research critically.

Others had developed centralised roles and units that provided hands on support for grant applications, partnership development and training. These centralised roles also provided leadership, centralised information coordination and the ability to evaluate activities and identify needs and opportunities.

What does research engagement look like?

Engagement activities are often defined in a limited way as purely a communication activity, such as putting out media stories or creating websites. However, engagement activities occur throughout the life of a research project and reflected the research approach, and interests of the academics and stakeholders. Some disciplines may feel that engagement is more difficult to achieve because their research is less applied or accessible.

At one university in the USA, a research project in humanities developed a program that involved community members in small groups, and facilitated conversations about historical artifacts and documents with academics. The program provided an effective mechanism for engaging community members with historical research, as well as developing new skills through engagement with researchers.

The institution-wide view of those in support services helped researchers access the myriad support services and opportunities across their university that researchers didn’t have time to track down themselves. At most of the universities I visited, the support roles matched researchers’ needs with opportunities for engagement. This could mean helping to write impact plans and connecting researchers to opportunities within the university such as library training programs, existing events that provide community interaction, or online communication tools. It also included assistance developing and sustaining partnerships with industry and community groups, tapping into existing student work placement or research projects, and developing community consultation plans.

One Canadian university had identified that, while many researchers spent time organising community events, there were existing community forum series organised by others in the university that routinely struggled to find researchers to present. This, and other examples of duplication and disconnection, contributed to the decision to establish a centralised role that could plan support for engagement strategically, connect researchers with opportunities and save researchers time and effort.

Centralised and faculty-based engagement support services closed the loop by tracking and evaluating what activities were successful, unmet needs that existed, and new opportunities generated by community or industry interests.

Research is changing

Several senior researchers and managers I met felt that the definition of research quality is changing. Engagement throughout the research process is not only important in addressing funding criteria or government assessments but is fundamental to genuine collaborative research partnerships and respecting the knowledge of research participants.

The activities involve specific skills and knowledge that many researchers don’t have the time or ability to undertake, so support is needed to facilitate research engagement activities. Many researchers and managers also suggested that engagement should be recognised in promotion criteria to reflect the time and expertise involved and included in standard researcher training. Universities need to capture and learn from these activities, not only to represent and celebrate their achievements to outside bodies, but to build capacity and create connections within their own organisations.

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