The Creating Publics project sets out with the aim of testing-out and innovating contextually-grounded as well as theoretically informed approaches to public engagement. However, this project will need to recognise that contexts are assembled and constructed just as much as publics (and theories) are. Having begun work on the first two public creation ‘pilots’, it has already become apparent that the issue of what exactly the context of public engagement is, in a given setting, is itself something that is under constant negotiation. For example, in one of the settings I am currently working in there is the context for public engagement as it is set up in the projects ‘pathways to impact’ plan. This is a plan put in place at the request of the funders (in this case, the ESRC). Such plans are needed to negotiate the broader context-setting interventions enacted by various expert public agencies, such as HEFCE, RCUK and NCCPE. There are, nevertheless, other contexts that are may increasingly be impacting on debates about public engagement with social science research in the UK. Since the public role of social science research and universities more broadly is becoming the subject of ever more widespread public debate, as is illustrated not only by widespread public comment about the forthcoming changes to universities funding arrangements but also by the spate of recent publications on this topic (see for example, John Holmwood’s recent edited collection ‘The Manifesto for the Public University‘) and public events being convened (see for example, Whitechapel Art Gallery’s forthcoming 12 February ‘salon’ conversation on the future of education). There is of course also a long tradition of debate in the social sciences about its public role, public responsibilities and about the public value of education. However, during this period of heightened uncertainty for the HE system in the UK, it will be interesting to see if these two contexts in which it is possible to situate public engagement begin to interact and alter each other more than they have done so far. I am certainly beginning to hear these two contexts being talked about in the same conversations, but I’m not yet at all sure whether or how this might play out as part of the Creating Publics project.
What’s the context of public engagement?