Initial insights from our work with the British Science Association (BSA)

Collaborate has been working with the BSA to help them identify what a healthy system for public engagement with research looks like, and develop a funding programme to support this. This is the first in a series of blogs to share our learning so far.

Since January 2021, the British Science Association has been running The Ideas Fund, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The Ideas Fund is testing a new way of supporting communities to work with researchers on ideas related to mental wellbeing. While many community-researcher partnerships tend to be led by researcher or university agendas, The Ideas Fund aims to shift these power dynamics by starting with what is most important to the community, to enable a more equal, mutually beneficial partnership.

The Ideas Fund has supported over 70 exciting partnership projects in its four focus areas: Highlands and Islands, Hull, North West Northern Ireland and Oldham. From the first round of grants, the team were struck by the common challenges experienced by multiple projects in each place, and the opportunities to take collective action.

From projects to systems

The team began to consider the question of how, alongside project funding, they could intervene in the four places to enable more system-wide, deep rooted change that would sustain beyond project funding. If the public engagement system in places right now tends to not prioritise community groups, what would it take to nurture a ‘healthier’ system that supported meaningful public engagement for the long term?

The BSA are not alone in exploring this question of how to nurture healthier systems, and the role of funders in supporting this. At Collaborate, we’ve seen and worked alongside funders and commissioners in a range of fields who are also exploring how to fund systems change. From Save the Children’s Early Learning Communities, to the Cornerstone Fund in London, funders are increasingly looking beyond only resourcing projects to also pay attention to the wider system. Similar trends can be seen in the commissioning of public services, for example, the Plymouth Alliance for Complex Needs and Liverpool City Region’s homelessness assertive outreach service are exploring how commissioners can play a role in enabling local organisations and people to work and learn together towards common goals, rather than working in silos or competition.

We are excited to bring our systems change learning and experience to the field of public engagement, working alongside the BSA and partners.

Identifying indicators of a healthy system

To help them develop their thinking and approach, the BSA asked Collaborate to explore what a healthy local system for public engagement looks like. Through a short initial piece of work, we conducted brief desk research and interviewed seven people (some involved in The Ideas Fund, plus wider external experts) to identify indicators of a healthy public engagement system. We refined the draft framework collaboratively with interviewees in May 2022.

The framework sets out five core themes, each with a number of indicators and sub-indicators. For example, it explores not just the discrete role of researchers/universities and community groups, but how these intersect in terms of shared goals, relationships and behaviours. Under this theme, in a healthy system we would see community groups and researchers sharing power and valuing lived and learned experience; putting the needs and interests of communities first; and being flexible, adaptable and open to a wide range of outcomes.  You can find more details in a draft of the framework here.

The framework aims to widen the lens of how we think about public engagement in research, helping identify underlying factors that can contribute to long term change. We hope it will help funders to identify how they might intervene differently, and encourage community groups and researchers to consider how they can collectively contribute to a wider movement for change. Every place is different so the expectation is not that every place is strong on all indicators, but that the framework can help identify strengths to build on and challenges to address within specific local contexts.

Putting the framework into practice

During the autumn and winter of 2022 Collaborate and the BSA started to use the framework to test the hypothesis that intervening to strengthen infrastructure in different parts of the public engagement system (beyond only investing in one-off projects) will lead to more meaningful and sustainable public engagement in a place.

We used the framework as a diagnostic tool and a prompt to explore the strengths and challenges of local systems with three of The Ideas Fund project locations, and to start to identify opportunities for different kinds of interventions.

We’ll be sharing more about this process and what we’ve learned from it so far in future blogs. If you’re working in Highlands and Islands, Hull, North West Northern Ireland or Oldham and would like to get involved in this work, please contact Chris Manion at the BSA for more information.

In the meantime, we’d love to explore and develop the framework further with others. What resonates with you? Where else is this work happening that we could learn from? Please get in touch with Ellen Care at Collaborate or Chris Manion at the BSA.

To hear more on the topic of nurturing healthy systems, see this link for a recording of a related event hosted by BSA and Collaborate.