Planning for a principled approach to engaged research

by Prof. Richard Holliman, The Open University

Effective planning for engaged research is essential to the success of any subsequent activity. The Open University’s (OU) Public Engagement with Research Catalyst identified six dimensions of engaged research: preparedness; politics; people; purposes; processes; and performance (Holliman et al., 2015). We argue that those involved in the planning for engaged research should take account of all six dimensions.

In our contribution to the Digitally Agile Researcher we draw on an example from the Engaging Opportunities Project. As part of this project a team comprising OU researchers and local teachers documented how the six dimension of engaged research were applied in practice to develop, deliver and evaluate a ‘Labcast’ for sixth-form students at Denbigh School in Milton Keynes.

What is a Labcast?

A ‘Labcast’ is an interactive, live web broadcast that integrates video streaming and instant messaging to enable a conversation between two or more locations.

A short video explaining the concept of a Labcast can be viewed in the short video below.

Planning for school-university engagement with research

In our contribution to the Digitally Agile Researcher we explore the six dimensions of engaged research as guiding principles through which school-university engagement with research can be planned. Each dimension or principle is informed by a series of questions. In providing collaboratively-derived answers to these questions the ‘Labcast’ activity was planned, enacted and evaluated.

Figure 1: The dimensions of engaged research (adapted from Holliman et al., 2015)


How can people plan effectively for school-university engagement with research? Why should researchers, school students and teachers engage with research? What levels of information are required to engage? What skills and competencies are required to engage?


What are the conditions required to facilitate school-university engagement with research? Do the participants—in this instance, researchers, school students and teachers—see genuine value in engaging, or do they feel they ‘have to’ engage? What is the wider context for school-university engagement with research?


Who could participate? Who should participate? What forms of expertise are necessary to participate? How will the contributions of different participants be attributed as the engagement progresses?


Why engage? What are the expectations of the various participants—in this instance, researchers, school students and teachers—to the processes of engagement? Can the purposes be characterised as: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Relevant; and Time-bound (SMART)?


How, when, where and through what media will the engagement take place? Have the processes been discussed and agreed with the participants? What are the rules of engagement?

Are they fair to all participants? Who governs the processes of engagement? At what points in the research cycle should participants engage? In what ways should engagement take place for particular publics, at particular points in the cycle of responsible research and innovation?


Who should assess the performance of the school-university engagement with research? What types of knowledge, data, methods of data collection and techniques of analysis could be used to evaluate the potential impacts of the engaged research? What measures could be used to explore whether the engagement worked? How can the findings from evaluation research be shared effectively with participants to improve future processes of engagement?

Pragmatism vs. morality

We sought pragmatic answers to each of these questions, and we discuss them in the chapter. As a result of these collaborative and cooperative experiences, we argue that these guiding principles should not be set in stone. Rather, they provide a framework through which engagement can be enacted in ways that are meaningful and relevant to participants. In effect, this is a principilist approach, underpinned by a philosophy of pragmatism.
One of the critiques of a principilist approach is that it lacks an underlying moral theory. To that end, our approach our approach to school-university engagement with research can be seen to draw on the work of Fricker (2007), who explored the concept of ‘epistemic injustice’.

At the Open University our mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. All our work is informed by an ethos of social justice. This moral theory has underpinned our approach to school-university engagement with research within the Engaging Opportunities project. Our approach has been informed by the following ethical tenets: Knowledge for all; Mutual Respect; Openness in Process; Collaboration over competition; Balance in validity and accuracy; Do no damage; and Power with responsibility.

Together, these tenets combine in our pupil-centred approach. We argue that such an approach is important because children and young people are key publics for engaged research. They are the pool of talent from which the next generation of expertise will develop. They are also prospective citizens with a stake in how research agendas are framed and prioritised. And they will have some responsibility for managing the benefits and challenges that arise from the social and economic impact of these studies.

It follows that effective planning for school-university engagement with research requires a mixture of pragmatism and underpinning moral theory. Such an approach requires careful upstream planning, downstream project management through the research cycle, and effective forms of governance


Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford, University Press, Oxford.

Holliman, R., Davies, G., Pearson, V., Collins, T., Sheridan, S., Brown, H., Hallam, J. and Russell, M. (2017, in press). ‘Planning for engaged research: a collaborative ‘Labcast’’, in Kucirkova, N. and Quinlan, O. (eds.) The Digitally Agile Researcher. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Holliman, R., Adams, A., Blackman, T., Collins, T., Davies, G., Dibb, S., Grand, A., Holti, R., McKerlie, F., Mahony, N. and Wissenburg, A. (2015). An Open Research University: Final Report. The Open University: Milton Keynes. Available from:


This post is based on a chapter that is co-authored by: Gareth Davies, Victoria Pearson, Trevor Collins and Simon Sheridan from the Open University; and Helen Brown, Jenny Hallam and Mark Russell from Denbigh School in Milton Keynes. Several of the ideas, workshop activities and tools discussed in this blog post were funded through an award made as part of the RCUK School University Partnership Initiative (EP/K027786/1; and a further award made through the RCUK Public Engagement with Research Catalysts (EP/J020087/1; The Labcast was funded through an RCUK ‘Bringing Cutting Edge Science into the Classroom’ Award (

I am grateful to Fabien Medvecky for introducing me to the work of Miranda Fricker.