Towards a Public Engagement Stewardship model

How can researchers get the support and expertise they need for public engagement, in a way that is easily accessible and tailored to their research/discipline? As a potential angle of approach, I would like to share some background information on the Data Stewardship model of the TU Delft. Just as research data management is a prerequisite for effective data sharing and greater openness, so is public engagement a prerequisite for accessible science that is useful to diverse audiences. Data Stewardship is recognised at TU Delft as key component of the Open Science Programme and could serve as inspiration for a ‘Public Engagement Stewardship’ model connecting researchers, faculty support staff, communication professionals and relevant partners in communication science beyond the university.

Data Stewardship

In data management there tends to be very few (if any) one-size fit all solutions. In addition, centralised support does not always find its way to all the departments and faculties. Therefore, at TU Delft there was a need to offer faculty-specific help and to facilitate internal networking in the departments and across the campus. This is where Data Stewardship came in, composed of a centralized component at the TU Delft Library and faculty embedded data stewards. Data stewards at TU Delft faculties create awareness of good research data management and support researchers with knowledge, appropriate solutions, advice, workshops and communities.

Faculty embedded with top-level commitment 

Many universities have data stewards, but models of how and where data stewards are appointed vary from university to university. At the TU Delft, the whole Data Stewardship program started top-down, involving the TU Delft Library and faculties from the beginning. This top-down commitment was crucial for a jump start. The data stewards themselves did an excellent job in establishing their role within the faculty. Within months after the program started there was one fulltime dedicated data steward appointed by every faculty.

The faculties recognize the importance of central coordination by the data steward coordinator working within the Library. The coordinator serves as linking pin between the data stewards and the TU Delft Library, connecting central services like publishing and privacy to the faculty level. On the other hand, data stewards can advise, based on their connections with the researchers, on the improvement of Library services and trainings for researchers. Thus a good foundation was built between the faculty and the Library.

Knowledge hubs with discipline specific research support

The objective of Data Stewardship is to enable the cultural change towards open science. In the beginning, data stewards spent most of their time talking to many people, establishing their position in the faculty, and doing lots of outreach. They invested time in building trusting relationships. Their mix of knowledge and skills are key to their success: they are good communicators, understand research (they have done a PhD or something similar) and have an expertise in data management. They are also a knowledge hub for all the relevant research services and tools provided by TU Delft (Library), and have knowledge of privacy, ethics, legal, security and integrity. It is not hard to figure that researchers are very pleased with the arrival of data stewards, because they are accessible, understand their challenges and translate proper available solutions for their problems. As the data stewards are discipline specific, every faculty has a slightly different profile for their data stewards accustomed to the needs of the researchers within the faculty.

After several years, data stewards have built good relationships with researchers and created an insightful overview of data management topics within faculties. Data stewards are also taking lead in providing faculty level data management training and developing disciplinary specific data management and open science practices and communities.

Implementing public engagement skills and knowledge

Public engagement is another prerequisite to realize open science. Researchers have expressed a need for knowledge of and skills for public engagement. As with research data management, there is no one-size fits all solution to effectively incorporate public engagement in the research process. Therefore, it could be worthwhile to start a pilot within a few faculties with public engagement stewards.

As a basic profile, they would need to have expertise in public engagement, a background in research and be good communicators. They should function as knowledge hub and linking pin for public engagement related services, departments and communities within the university, and help identify and facilitate the dialogue with relevant stakeholders. They need to understand what practicing public engagement entails for the researcher in our current society, and provide researchers with or direct them to support and advice on for example safety and ethics.

The public engagement stewards will first need to invest time and effort in establishing their role within the faculty and build relationships with communication departments, faculty staff, researchers and other relevant stakeholders. In order to do this successfully, they will also need commitment of the faculty and the support of the Communications department.

The public engagement coordinator could be appointed by the central Communications department, linking relevant central (communication) services to faculty level. The coordinator could create an overview of public engagement initiatives, communities, needs, stimulate the exchange of best practices and challenges between the public engagement stewards and bring the latest knowledge and skills on public engagement, from for example the national centre of science communication, into the university. Public engagement steward communities could be built stimulating knowledge exchange amongst universities.

There is more to it
This article focuses on the need researchers have for skills and knowledge on public engagement, which amongst others appears from the Athena-research report Wetenschapscommunicatie door wetenschappers: Gewaardeerd!, and how we could provide some relief in this need via embedding public engagement stewards. However, in order for researchers to actually implement public engagement practices throughout their research, it is clear that solely providing them with skills and knowledge is insufficient. Other resources like time, money, and credits are necessary. These resources are beyond the scope of this article.

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