Simon Denegri: Courage, dear funder, courage

The UK Research Institute (UKRI)—the nation’s £7.5 billion research giant established in April last year—is beginning to set out its stall on public engagement.

A few weeks ago it published its “Vision For Public Engagement” highlighting that public engagement makes research and innovation “more relevant, impactful, and trusted.” Since then it has followed-up this statement of its ambitions by announcing a new Citizen Science Exploration Grants scheme with the aim of supporting “researchers and innovators” to develop skills and capacity in citizen science. 

UKRI—which was formed by bringing together the UK’s seven existing research councils, Innovate UK and parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), into one unified body—says that it aims to bring the sum of its parts to bear on some key public engagement challenges in a more strategic and unified way. These challenges include how to support and incentivise researchers and how to measure impact.

This commitment is welcome. As its focus on diversity and inclusion—one of four public engagement goals—it describes in its vision document: engaging under-represented communities and places; actively involving a wide range of people in its work; attracting young people into science and; listening to public concerns and aspirations. There is no doubt that its combined strengths and that of other public funders who are now more or less aligning around the same priorities could make a real difference.

Yet, as statements go UKRI’s vision document feels more like an apprehensive toe dipped in shallow waters than a daring cliff dive by the country’s leading research funder. Conceptually it does not really describe the sort of future relationship it wants to build with the public. Little new is offered by way of specific plans beyond what was outlined briefly in its 2019 deliver plan. There is somewhat curious, but ultimately meaningless reference to setting up a Public Engagement Advisory Group in the final paragraph of the document.

Its Citizen Science Exploration Grants are perhaps indicative of UKRI’s cautious, or some may say unenlighted, approach to public engagement. It has committed itself to 20 grants at £20k each for researchers to “develop pilot projects to build citizen science into their work.” And, yes, I know it’s very a cheap shot (in every sense of the word the pun is intended) but the total sum committed to the scheme constitutes a tiny percentage of the UKRI’s annual budget (£400,000 vs a budget of £7.5 billion). Yet I suspect that even this small amount probably required the public funding equivalent of hand-to-hand fighting to extract it.

More disappointing is the steady-as-we-go, status quo and overly restrictive nature of UKRI’s approach to the funding scheme. Lead applicants must be existing UKRI grant holders. There is no requirement that proposals should focus on priorities identified by citizens, or for evidence of a strong partnership with citizens being at the heart of such proposals. The guidance is even vaguer on whether citizens might even have a hand in helping to select proposals. I very much doubt the results will look citizen driven, but I am more than happy to be proved wrong.

Notwithstanding that, we are talking about pilot projects and we are promised there is more to come in future years, compared to the breathless flow of announcements and launches UKRI has made in other parts of its business, its first forays into public engagement as an entity feel more like a dingy being pushed gently away from the shore. It can be braver I am sure.

Of late I have been sharing the following quote with audiences: “The problem is not that people don’t trust governments, but governments don’t trust people.” It comes from a recent survey of Heads of Communications working with Governments across the world and is ascribed to a Government Director of Communications. Governments are increasingly pulling back from developing partnerships with citizens that are jointly conceived, reciprocal in nature, and where the benefits are shared. It is important that our research funders do not fall into the same trap.

Simon Denegri is the former NIHR National Director for Patients, Carers, and the Public.

Competing interests: See full disclosure here


UKRI Vision for Public Engagement: 

UKRI Delivery Plan: 

Citizen Science Exploration Grants:

The Leaders Report Increasing Trust Through Citizen Engagement, WPP, February 2019,