‘I wanted to help people inspire others about psychology’

Dr Janet Bultitude is Director of Public Engagement for the University of Bath’s Psychology department. She recently won the Leadership Award at the university’s Public Engagement Awards. As told to Ella Rhodes.

Different people think about public engagement in different ways, but some describe three types. One is outreach work, and this is what people usually first think of around public engagement – letting people know about your research, the topic of psychology and why it’s exciting. The second is to collaborate with non-academic audiences like government organisations, charities, individuals and patient groups, towards forming research ideas or collaborating in order to apply research. The third type is consulting non-academic audiences to find out, for example, how you can best shape your research to answer the sorts of questions that are really important.

I’ve done a bit of public engagement throughout my academic career, right from when I was a PhD student. I’ve always had this interest but to actually take it on as an admin role in my department was a really exciting thing for me. We were already doing great public engagement, but I was excited by the opportunity to shape the way that people in our department can choose to do the best public engagement for what they want to achieve in inspiring others about psychology. The University of Bath has a fantastic Public Engagement Unit, and I see part of my role as liaising between them and the members of my department to help promote the most relevant public engagement activities and training, and to discuss how we can best develop our public engagement to make the most of the specific strengths of our department.

There are some outreach events that are regular activities at the University of Bath and nationally that several people in our department take part in each year, like Pint of Science and Bath Taps into Science (the Bath University science festival). Another outreach event is Skype a Scientist; scientists are connected with schools anywhere in the world to Skype and tell them about their research or field in general. A similar event is I’m a Scientist, in which researchers answer questions from school students each day over social media. These are ways people can inspire different public audiences about their own research, or about psychology in general.

There are some people in the department who have had placements at the government to help gain insight into how the government thinks about using scientific findings to shape policy. Sally Adams was selected for the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, which offers the opportunity for research scientists and parliamentarians and civil servants to learn about each other’s worlds. Abbie Jordan was awarded funding from the British Psychological Society for winning I’m a Scientist, and she is going to use this to host a cake decorating workshop with young people who are in chronic pain. You might think ‘what does that have to do with psychology?’, but doing something a bit interactive and creative can help you talk to people about their thoughts on their pain, how it has affected their lives, and what the big issues are for them.

We’re very lucky to have a Psychology Widening Participation Officer, Suzanne Wilczoch. It’s a new role and the University of Bath has appointed several people in similar roles in different departments. Some young people are at risk of having less opportunity to learn about what it’s like to go to university: for example people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those who go to schools where there isn’t a very high rate of people going on to university, or where there’s not a high rate of parents having been to university. Together with others in the department Suzanne is setting up more activities that can inspire people from these sorts of backgrounds to think about applying to university. There are so many people from all walks of life who have the grades and the right qualities to have really fulfilling experiences studying and working in psychology but who just might have never thought to apply. Diversity in our student body and amongst people who work in psychology makes for more enriching environments, and better ensures that the needs and problems of all of society are being considered and addressed.

When I stepped into my role, I did a survey of the staff and postgraduate students, and one of the things I asked was ‘what barriers are there to you doing more public engagement?’. Not surprisingly, the most common one was time – or lack of it. Everyone in this department who’s doing public engagement has other things they’re doing… I can’t give people more time, but what I can do is help them to think about how to use the little bit of time they do have more strategically to achieve what they want to achieve out of public engagement.

The next biggest barrier was a lack of funding. A lot of public engagement doesn’t cost much… Our head of department, Greg Maio, figured out how to set aside a small pot of money people can apply for to support their public engagement events. We have limited funds, but it’s enough to cover travel, or pay for a lunch for people attending their event. This is a small and easy step that any other psychology department could take to promote public engagement.

Another barrier was people not feeling skilled-up enough in the particular thing they wanted to do. I identified the training people wanted and organised it. We had some very good training in how to talk to the radio and TV media from a team called Media Training International (they’re not paying me to say that!). That was a full-day training session that 33 people in the department have now done. We’ve also had training from an editor from The Conversation in how to write for them, which is really about how to write for a general audience.

The final barrier, which tended to be identified by people earlier in their career, was they just weren’t quite sure what to do in terms of public engagement. We addressed this by putting together a list of regular outreach events, often nice entry-level events that happen every year. I also try to connect people who might be doing similar things. If someone says they want to do something with older people I can connect them with others in the department who might have done public engagement along those lines. We also have a departmental newsletter where we have people writing pieces on the public engagement they’ve done, so others can see examples of good practice.

Because our department has grown considerably over the last several years, and there are no historic records on what public engagement activities we took part in before I started in my role, I don’t have any hard data on whether any of the new steps I have helped to implement have caused the amount of public engagement to increase. Some of my colleagues tell me they think I’ve had an impact on the extent to which people engage with non-academic audiences. I can see that, although there are definitely many people who are doing very good public engagement without my input at all, there are some people who need a little nudge. I’d also emphasise that, at a senior level, public engagement is really valued in this department and also at the university. For example, as the Director of Public Engagement I sit on the department’s executive committee because public engagement is considered to be something that’s of strategic importance to the department. It’s important to help people to realise this is something that’s worth putting their time into.
In a way, this is the perfect admin contribution I can make to the department, because it’s something I’m genuinely passionate about. It’s very rewarding because it involves a little bit of everything. Our research is generally publicly funded, so it’s only right that we should involve the public, and it’s very fulfilling to facilitate that at the department level. From something as small as a child coming out with a really interesting comment when you do a demonstration with them, to a focus group to identify new research directions, it can be a really exciting way to get a different perspective on your research.

Another aspect I find rewarding is that a lot of what I do is contributing to professional development. That can be helping PhD students who might be doing public engagement for the first time, or it can be for staff members who might have done public engagement before but now want to gain new skills or are considering doing things that are perhaps a little bit scary like talking to the media directly. I can have my little role in making that a bit easier for people.

- Dr Janet Bultitude is a Senior Lecturer in cognitive and experimental psychology.
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