Piece by Derren Cresswell, ENCOMPASS Research Fellow
As we waited for the primary school children to finish up their session in the education room, it was clear that the network that is being created by the ENCOMPASS project was well under way. People introduced themselves as they filled out name tags and chatted about bits of public engagement that they were involved with. From a personal point of view, as the project research fellow, it was great to see all the people that I’d been emailing over the past few weeks making the personal connections that successful projects require.
The first full partner meeting of the NERC funded project ‘Engaging Communities, Publics and Society – ENCOMPASS’ – took place on Tuesday 28th November at the Lapworth Museum. The partners and other invited guests (30 in total) listened to a range of short yet informative and inspiring talks from the core partners. Carl Stevenson (GEES) introduced the project highlighting the culture shift necessary to truly engage with the public: From, presenting completed research to, co-creating research with communities and ensuring that this research has direct benefit to the community. Becca Kirkpatrick of Citizen’s UK highlighted how their method of community organising, communities creating their own power, first relies on listening before moving on to developing and undertaking actions to make something change. Emphasis was placed on suggesting alternatives to the current scenario in order to bring about this change. Monder Ram (Business School) spoke passionately about his experience of working with Citizen’s UK to engage with local businesses in traditionally underserved parts of Birmingham. Initially these meetings were difficult as there was an obvious disconnect in language and thinking between academia and the small businesses. However, continued engagement has produced very fruitful relationships based on trust. Most profoundly he highlighted that to be truly engaged required long-term commitment and that if such actions are just seen as a way of receiving a small grant then they shouldn’t be done; such an approach should be part of all research proposals.
Jojo Head from the Earthwatch institute presented how Citizen Science has been used to engage communities and individuals and collect data. In addition, their connection with industrial partners was also highlighted. After a busy networking session the attendees took part in a short activity to generate an understanding of the issues and proposed actions in response to NERC’s societal challenges: Benefiting from Natural Resources, Resilience to Environmental Hazards and Managing Environmental Change and to consider any future societal challenges. Feedback on the meeting was positive, with all attendees agreeing they had a better appreciation of different stakeholder views and wishing to remain engaged with the project. The next stage of the project is two-fold: Listening training workshops for the LES academic researchers who may wish to engage with local community groups, and listening workshops organised by Citizen’s UK where academics will meet with a range of community groups. If Monder’s experience is anything to go by these meetings may be difficult at times.
However, from my perspective as an early career researcher, it is clear that if environmental scientists wish to work toward an improved understanding, a greater resilience, and a more sustainable use, of our environment, then co-creation of projects at the community level is crucial. The multiplication of any locally derived improvements will be an essential contribution to tackling regional, national and even global scale environmental problems and making the most of any associated opportunities.