How can funding bodies help support public engagement?

5 Jun 2023

Jo Bradley, Public Engagement and Events Producer at the British Academy, on how higher education funding bodies can support agile and creative public engagement practice.

Earlier this spring the British Academy launched a new strategic plan for 2023 to 2027, which outlines our vision of putting the humanities and social sciences at the heart of understanding the world and shaping a brighter future. Though we often argue that SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) research is vital to solving the many complex challenges the world faces, to maximise its impact we must open up this research to wider society. Indeed, we believe that public engagement – in all its myriad forms – should be an integral part of research practice. The problem is that researchers still come up against barriers to delivering public engagement, including time, money and support.

The Academy has been a long-time supporter of public engagement within the SHAPE disciplines, as a founding partner of Being Human, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, and by celebrating some of the best British Academy-funded research at our annual Summer Showcase, now in its sixth year. But we have also been conscious that funding bodies like us can play an even bigger role in championing public engagement, and we have been considering how we can use our position and influence to support researchers, encourage culture change and foster greater public engagement across the higher education and research landscape.

With that in mind, earlier this month we launched a new pilot public engagement funding scheme to support innovative engagement, called SHAPE Involve and Engage. Through this, we are inviting researchers to form partnerships with galleries, archives, libraries or museums, and deliver creative activities which push forward public engagement practice. These projects can be delivered as one-off events, or as a series of activities over the next year. The funding awards will enable researchers to try a new approach or work with a new audience, test a new model, make new connections with their peers and build strong and positive relationships with partners in the cultural sector and the arts more widely.

Arts, heritage and cultural organisations hold expertise in abundance and by working in partnership with a gallery, library, archive or museum in this scheme, researchers will be able to form lasting connections and share knowledge for the benefit of all.

We know from our longstanding Small Research Grants scheme that relatively small pots of funding can make a big difference to a researcher’s career and to their field of expertise, seeding new ideas on which future initiatives can be built. We also know that researchers within the SHAPE disciplines often lead the way with innovative methods of public engagement. Through our SHAPE Involve and Engage scheme we will support these kinds of innovations and inspire new ones.

Our vision is to see public engagement fully embedded in research, and the Academy’s Mid-Career and Wolfson Fellowships are already moving in this direction, with dedicated funds within these programmes for public engagement. For instance, British Academy Mid-Career Fellow Dr Gareth Thomas explored the experiences of those living with learning disabilities in the UK, researching how they defined their identities via a knowledge exchange workshop that brought together participants alongside civil society, policymakers, researchers, and charities. Meanwhile, British Academy/Wolfson Fellow Dr Olivia Sheringham will work with refugee and asylum-seekers, as well as two arts-based refugee charities, to understand the effects of the migration system. We want researchers to be able to try new approaches like these and be confident sharing what works and what doesn’t. We will be evaluating the pilot SHAPE Involve and Engage scheme and, if successful, will look to identify new sectors and constituencies for the partnership model.

In the meantime, we hope that this programme will deliver exciting projects and activities which inspire the public and empower SHAPE researchers across the UK to take a lead in producing creative, inventive and forward-looking engagement practice.

The British Academy’s SHAPE Involve and Engage programme is currently open for applications until Wednesday 28th June, 5pm.

Find out more and apply.

Sign up to our email newsletters