When researchers reach out and engage with the public in a dialogue

Helene Dyrhauge |

Whilst most of Europe is analysing the latest EP election results and journalists are calling academics for an expert assessment, this blog post will take a slightly different perspective and instead focus on how we – academics/researchers – engage the public in a dialogue about for example the EU.

Research dissemination has become a central part of every funding application and it is an explicit expectation in many universities, but what does it mean? Often it translates into a website and a blog (the irony is not lost), some academics write opinion pieces for newspapers and others become the experts the journalists phone when they need a specific perspective on a current affair issue and very few become public intellectuals who are able to influence society. Yet we rarely venture out in the real world to talk to actual real people … how often do we take part in or even organize public debates in the local community? It’s mainly by invitation only.

This term a colleague Laura Horn and I decided to organize three EU debates in our local community – Roskilde, Denmark. The aim was to show-case the Department of Society and Globalisation, Roskilde University, EU expertise in the run up to the EP elections, and to invite some external speakers to debate some topical EU issues with the local community. We ended up with three debates, each debate had one academic from the department to provide the wider perspective on the topic and then 2-3 external practitioners provided opposing views. The first debate addressed the question of EU democracy and the EP election; this was the least popular debate – only 11 people turned up – but the audience actively asked lots of pertinent questions. The second debate looked at the hot topic of ‘welfare tourism’, which at the time was at the highest in the Danish media, again the debate was lively with lots of questions from the audience, which consisted of 40 people including a high-school class. The final debate focused on Denmark and the Euro, where 20 people turned up a on a lovely spring evening, and again the audience actively asked questions to the experts. Overall, the audience asked the difficult and critical questions we sometimes wish the students would ask!

Were these debates a success? If reaching a big audience then no, given the size of Roskilde (roughly 48000 inhabitants) we did not expect more people to turn up, actually two people turned up for all the debates! However, if engaging the public in a dialogue which provided broader perspectives than those usually seen in the media, then yes the debates were successful. Importantly the feedback I received from the participants was positive and several asked why we did not have more debates and how they could participate in public lectures at the university.  The overall conclusion of these debates is uplifting the public is interested in our research and would like to talk to us about our research!

Moreover, researchers are often seen as exerts, and our role as experts were raised by a colleague, Silas Harrebye,  who is organising four pub-up debates  in Copenhagen with the aim of bringing Roskilde University to Copenhagen[1]. The latest debate “research and dissemination” took place in Ørsted Ølbar, a popular beer and sports bar, where Stephen Duncombe (NYU), Rune Lykkeberg (Politiken) and Laura Horn (RUC) debated the following questions; how should researchers and journalists work better together? What is the role of the public intellectual today? What are the moral implications? – whilst the debate topic was different from the EU debates earlier in the semester, the pub-up debate raised some interesting questions about the role of academics as both experts and public intellectuals in society today, which links into the EU debates.

Overall, most academics are used by journalist as experts to comments on current affairs – EP elections, the situation in Ukraine or some national policy issues, whilst the expert commentators provide valuable analytical perspectives on current affairs very few academics are able to transcend this threshold from expert commentator to public educators with their own TV programmes (Brian Cox and Mary Beard are some excellent examples) or indeed public intellectuals, who are able to influence society (Stuart Hall was mentioned in the pub-up debate). Crucially, these appearances in the media do not foster a dialogue with the public and academics remain at a distance from the public. However, many academics are invited to take part in public events and these are great opportunities to disseminate research, yet it might not be the latest research output, instead we are invited to talk about what the event organiser and the public find interesting, thus we might be the experts but we are rarely the agenda setter unless we become public intellectuals perhaps!?

Finally, people are interested in what goes on inside the universities, and the people I spoke to would like to come to public debates and have a dialogue with us academics/researchers/experts … we just have to find time between teaching, applying for grants and writing research papers for publications in high impact journals … not to mention balancing work and private life … just as it is rewarding to teach, it can also be rewarding to talk to the public and find out what they think!

Poster from the EU debate series:
EU debat forår 2014

[1] Roskilde University is roughly 24 min by train from Copenhagen central station and most of the students live in central Copenhagen, yet they often find it very far to get to Roskilde University!