Our Very First Dilemmas Cafe

On Friday 27th April, Dawn Smith (Public Engagement Officer, Edinburgh Napier University) and I (Sarah Anderson, Public and Community Engagement Manager, The University of Edinburgh) ran a Dilemmas Cafe. The focus of the Cafe was ethics in public engagement with research.

The Dilemmas Cafe format was created by colleagues in the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University. The format allows participants to discuss ethical challenges raised by certain types of activity, such as public engagement with research, in a non-judgemental setting, learning from others and developing possible solutions.

Comments on the format

Of the ten participants at our Edinburgh Cafe, two were current researchers and eight were professional support staff. We held it in a brunch format and tried to use our choices of food and drink (nice pastries and teas, plus plenty of fresh fruit) to set a welcoming, restorative tone! We also shied away from the usual flip-charts and post-its, using brown Kraft paper instead, to make it feel a little less like we were at work. We did use a university venue, for cost reasons, but in an ideal world it might have  helped set the mood to hold it off-campus.

Key to the Dilemmas Cafe format is that two or three of the participants bring along dilemmas to discuss with the group. Some of our participants had indicated they would like to do so but, on the day, the prospect of presenting it to the whole group (part of the Cafe format) was less appealing. As facilitators, we managed this by introducing a dilemma of our own; after this, others seemed more inclined to speak.

My co-facilitator Dawn had been to a Cafe organised by the format’s Durham creators and, as a result of this, recommended that we fully brief all participants on the format and process. We did this by email about a week before the event. This was well worth doing as, at this stage, a couple of participants also changed their minds about presenting a dilemma.

A high ratio of facilitators to participants is definitely recommended; we had a ratio of two-to-ten and this only felt *just* enough. Although we had very clear ground rules for the discussion, the nature of some dilemmas topics raised by participants (e.g. experiments involving animals) were emotive and fairly involved facilitation was needed to keep things on track.

As we only ended up with ten people on the day, we gave participants the option of splitting into two groups or speaking as one. They chose the latter, which worked well in that everyone had chance to hear all conversations and, given we were in one large room, meant no one had to try and tune out the conversations of another nearby group. It did, however, mean that some voices were not heard as much as others, which may have been easier to manage in a smaller group (although it may be that these participants simply did not feel the need to speak).

Finally, we did not manage to create in Edinburgh quite the full zen approach that the Durham team did! This may come with practice (and may have been easier without a last-minute room change!).

Discussions and outcomes

The discussions took place under Chatham House rules, meaning that while the content can be shared outside the group, it cannot be attributed to individuals. In the session itself, we encouraged participants not to identify individuals or organisations.

The first key theme arising from the discussion was the type of support needed from universities. There seemed to be a consensus among all participants that university staff and students engaging others with their research should reflect on the possible ethical implications of their engagement practice. This was felt to be especially vital now, after a decade of researchers being encouraged to do more and more public engagement – the risk level is now relatively high due to sheer volume. Where there was less consensus was how this should be done, in practice.

  • Should it be primarily a self-assessment process, or does it need to go to some form of committee?
  • Does it need to be the same process across all disciplines? Many engagement matters may already be picked up by research ethics reviews in the social sciences, but not in the engineering and physical sciences.
  • At what level will any process become too much of a burden, with the result that researchers are put off engaging, stop trying anything new or engagement begins to lack meaning and depth?
  • Could we become over-reliant on any institutional process, to the point we start to value basic ‘common sense’ less?

As a group, we did not reach a firm answer on this, but there seemed to be a leaning towards a framework or guidance for people to follow rather than an institutional process (such as a committee) for people to pass through. There did seem to be consensus that we need something: we cannot go backwards now the conversation has started.

What a public engagement ethics framework might consist of was the second key discussion point. Approximate conclusions we reached included:

  • Identifying risks to *everyone* involved – university staff and students as well as members of the public. It is easy to focus on risks to vulnerable groups but the risk-assessment needs to be comprehensive and cover all involved.
  • Identifying what the risks are (e.g. health and safety, reputational) and where they may conflict.
  • Identifying engagement mechanisms (social media, for example, poses ethical risks in quite specific ways).
  • Not viewing PVG as enough in its own right: it is a criminal check, not a qualification in working with vulnerable people.
  • Being clear at the outset on the purpose of the engagement, and not incurring unnecessary risks which would not further this purpose. (For example, while some members of our group felt there was a moral duty of disclosure at all times around the use of animals in research, the majority felt that it would not be okay to disclose if it could risk individual researchers’ lives, especially if it was not furthering the specific engagement objectives.)
  • Always operating with a metaphorical ‘fire extinguisher’. Researchers and professional support staff are unlikely to be skilled and experienced in everything needed in a challenging public engagement situation, as they will engage in a variety of contexts, and it’s probably not feasible for them to acquire all these skills. Make sure, then, that there is someone on hand who is, for example, a first-aider or a security guard, or who is skilled in de-escalating conflicts, or who knows when to contact a mental health crisis team (and whether it’s that team you need to call). Very often, people with these skills may be found in partner organisations.
  • Making training and other resources available to prepare university staff and students for ethically-challenging scenarios which arise quite often (and have some means of identifying and reporting back these situations – ‘incident-reporting’).
  • Generally encouraging reflective practice where mistakes can be acknowledged and learned from. An environment where people feel obliged to try and hide mistakes could be dangerous and reinforce ethically-poor practice.
  • Depending on the engagement situation, engagement could be emotionally exhausting or even worrying for university staff and students, so a debrief may also be useful in terms of preserving mental health, as well as for identifying what to do differently next time.

Next steps

The aim of the Cafe was, as well as to provide immediate support to the attendees, to generate material which will inform institutional resources on ethical public engagement with research at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier universities (and other Beltane partner universities, should they find it useful). The aim now is to identify next steps in generating these. The resulting toolkit/framework/guidance will hopefully be held in an easy-to-find, central part of a university’s website.