Summary of Beltane Lunch | The NUCLEUS Project

Heather Doran (L), University of Aberdeen and the NUCLEUS project

Today, we had our very first Beltane Lunch! This lunch, like our regular programme of Breakfasts and Twilights, was an informal meeting of people from Edinburgh’s universities who are interested in public engagement with research. The theme for today’s meeting was the NUCLEUS project.

NUCLEUS is a four-year, European Commission-funded project that looks at international best practice in responsible, ethical research. The Beltane Network of universities – the four universities in Edinburgh – is involved with the project via the University of Edinburgh. (European Commission funding recipients must be ‘legal entities’, which the Beltane Network isn’t, hence the official partner had to be just the administrative partner university, the University of Edinburgh.)

Heather Doran is the key contact for the NUCLEUS project at the University of Aberdeen and is managing a major piece of the project. For that reason, we invited Heather down to Edinburgh to tell us more. Without further ado, here’s a summary of our chat! Thank you to everyone who came and contributed.

What does NUCLEUS stand for?

The European Commission loves an acronym! NUCLEUS stands for New Understanding of Communication, Learning and Engagement in Universities and Scientific institutions.

What form does the project take?

The project has 24 partners from 15 countries and 3 continents: as well as European countries, both South Africa and China are involved. The four-year project is split into two halves: the first two years, where six fact-funding field trips and an academic study take place, and the second two years, where the findings of the first two years are tested out in some of the partner institutions.

Does Beltane being involved with the project mean there is funding for public engagement activities here in Edinburgh?

No, afraid not. The funding is for the research and the fact-finding field trips, and goes mainly on travel and staff time so that the former can be done. The project will produce new knowledge which can ultimately be shared and incorporated into work here in Edinburgh, and boosts the Edinburgh’s reputation as a centre of excellence in public engagement with research (which may be worth dropping into grant applications, for example!).

What is Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI)?

This is a term used a lot by the European Commission, and it’s what the NUCLEUS project says it’s looking at. Definitions can vary a little, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s the process by which stakeholders work together to align research with the values of society. RRI is about more than public engagement, and you might be more accustomed to the term RRI if you work on technology innovation or research commercialisation. RRI is also not uncontroversial: there have been concerns among some social science researchers, for example, that the European Commission’s on RRI is stifling innovation. The hope is that a project like NUCLEUS will, among other things, help legislation to keep up with innovation.

What are the key project findings so far?

  1. Institutions need to reflect and self-assess their own culture of RRI. An institution must measure its progress against itself. Every organisation is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all set of success criteria (or if there was, each criterion would be so broad as to be almost meaningless).
  2. Relationship managers are needed in organisations. What they’re called and where they sit may vary, but these intermediate brokers are essential.
  3. Incentives for researchers are needed. Again, what is appropriate may vary depending on the organisational and wider context, as well as the individual researchers. Cash, time, esteem and career progression are just some possibilities.
  4. Language and understanding is both an opportunity and a challenge. For example, even within the same institution, people may mean different things by ‘public engagement’, and RRI may not mean much to even very experienced UK-based researchers.
  5. Spaces are needed where groups can interact to achieve RRI.
  6. Training and support for staff and students is needed.

What differences have you observed when looking at the different project partners?

The differences are huge, and often cannot be separated from the differences between the wider national contexts. For example, in South Africa, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on applied research than in the UK, and people we spoke to felt this was because of the very pressing social, political, economic and cultural issues that needed addressing. Closer to home, universities in both Nottingham and Dublin had very close links with the local authorities; in Nottingham, this seemed to be because of the City Deal (which is now coming to Edinburgh).

We did observe the different partners doing some broadly similar things, but they tended to be under different headings and not necessarily talking to one another: for example, Patient and Public Involvement, which is a long-standing, routine approach in health research, brings in stakeholders at the very start of the project – something which might be classed as innovative by those who describe their work as ‘public engagement’; ditto for many principles long-used in design.

What insights on evaluation has the project created?

During the first phase of the project, a self-evaluation tool was created that combined the Theory of Change model with the EDGE tool. This is something which project partners can keep on using once the project is over, as change will take a lot longer than the couple of years they get to make changes through the project.

Are the project’s field trips a type of research?

This has been a sore point! They are not academic research as one would typically think of it (hence we’ve also had an academic study running alongside them), but the related project reports have tended to be subjected to the standard evaluation for academic reports, on which they (naturally) do not always perform brilliantly without some major post-hoc shoe-horning.

On the field trips, a group of people from different project partners travel to another partner, speak with a range of stakeholders there, and then document their observations and formulate recommendations based on those. There has been a rough methodology, but this has been refined as the field trip phase progressed. Maybe field trips are a type of research, but they contribute to understanding, not new knowledge. As such, while they maybe do not fit the criteria for Action Research, it might be useful to try and think of them in terms of Grounded Theory.

How can I find out more and stay informed?