Dr Lisa Whittaker, Research Engagement Manager, Tenovus Cancer Care

Published: 10 January 2020

Taking part in the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) Engage Academy over the past year has made me reflect on my role as a public engagement professional in a medical research charity. I’m the only person in this year’s Academy cohort currently working for a charity and not in a university. The NCCPE focus their work in universities and ask “what does an engaged university look like?” but I’m more inclined to ask “what does an engaged medical research charity look like?”.

Medical research charities

Medical research charities have invested £13 billion in research in the UK since the sector started collecting data in 2008. They have become a trusted source of information and are playing an ever more important role in terms of wider public engagement on science. Charities are now integral to the sustainability of science in this country and about 70% of all charity funding currently goes to Higher Education Institutions.

I’m fortunate, working in a charity, that I am spared the Research Excellence Framework (REF) cycle and writing pathways to impact statements that are required of Higher Education Institutions but I still have a responsibility to demonstrate the public benefit of my charity’s work. We would not be able to fund research without the support of the public.

Creative public engagement activities

Lab tours are a common engagement activity in medical research charities; they’re typically aimed at supporters, offering them a chance to see how their money is being spent. I often look to and learn a lot from my colleagues in other charities who undertake a vast array of innovative and creative public engagement activities:

  • Cancer Research UK: At their various centres CRUK run a variety of engagement events including lab tours, school days and engagement prizes and city-wide events like Open Doors.
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK: Have a fantastic citizen science game Sea Hero Quest with over 3 million players, and a programme of public events across the UK.
  • The British Heart Foundation: BHF have some excellent examples of public engagement activities including The Big Top – a circus themed travelling show about the life saving research they fund.

This year, I’m proud to be launching an exciting new collaboration between Tenovus Cancer Care and Exitus Escape Rooms. We brought together a group of researchers we fund and escape room designers to create our very own virotherapy themed escape room. It will be open and free to use at Cardiff Science Festival between 15 and 18 February. Following the festival, the room will remain and Exitus have kindly agreed to donate a share of the profits with us.  We’re also hoping to return to Einstein’s Garden at Green Man Festival. I’ve written about my experience of working here in 2018 in this blog.

Does it matter what we call it?

I increasingly find myself hearing and using different terms to describe what I do, including participation, engagement, involvement, outreach, and knowledge exchange and science communication. I don’t really mind what it’s called but I do think the reasons for doing public engagement matter, as do our expected outcomes, and these are determined by our understanding of what the term means. My job title says engagement but others have described my work as knowledge exchange and outreach as the public are not influencing or shaping research. I absolutely agree that patients and the public should have opportunities to influence and get involved in research but that’s not the focus of my work. It’s equally important that people have opportunities to understand the research we fund and public engagement events and activities are a great way to do this.

A middle ground

I often describe my role as a middle woman between researchers and various different audiences. But more broadly I think working in a medical research charity means I occupy a middle ground between the ‘public’ and universities/academia. It is important that I create opportunities for people to engage with research and researchers but also the charity as a whole. If I do this well then support will continue and hopefully increase allowing us to fund more vital research. I created this diagram to capture this process:

Medical research charities and universities have a lot to share and learn from each other. For example, universities evidence the impact of research effectively as part of REF and charities reach out to a wide range of supporters and the public and encourage behaviour change via donations and other forms of support. By coming together in spaces created by the AMRC and the NCCPE we can effectively work together and share best practice.