Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a one-day conference entitled “Hidden Gerontologists”, hosted by the Graduate Research on Writing (GROW) group at the Institute of Gerontology / Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London. GROW formed just over a year ago, the brainchild of a PhD student and early career researcher in Gerontology, who felt they would benefit from peer support in their writing. A seed was planted and the group has grown over the past year to include nine members comprised of PhD students, post docs and early career researchers. A shared commitment to provide peer review in a constructive and supportive environment brings us together on a monthly basis. We refer to it as peer-review without fear.
With support from the Institute of Gerontology, the Emerging Researchers on Ageing (ERA) branch of the British Society for Gerontology the Doctoral Training Centre at King’s College London, GROW organized this one-day conference to inspire others working on issues of ageing throughout the UK to form their own supportive networks of early career colleagues in their home institutions or geographic areas. The day also featured a unique and timely element—a very informative and practical session on public engagement.
The link between academic research and its dissemination to audiences outside of academia has not always been clear or straightforward. The notion that research findings, as a publicly funded good, should not be limited to publications in scientific, peer-reviewed journals alone is certainly not a new one. Increasingly, making research understandable and available to the wider public has been prioritized. In part, this may be driven by the culture of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, where researchers, departments and universities are no longer benchmarked by the quality and quantity of their output alone, but also by the extent to which findings of that work ‘impact’ scholarship, practice and policy. It is also likely the case that wider dissemination is linked to the recognition that researchers have a responsibility to share their work with those who have a stake in the outcomes: participants themselves, their families, service providers, local organizations, government, etc.
Public engagement, however, is not typically one of the dissemination skills acquired in postgraduate training, where emphasis is placed on how to write an academic paper and present findings via posters and power point presentations at academic conferences. As gerontologists, it is not hard to make the leap between the topics we study and the wider public. After all, issues of population ageing, healthy ageing, intergenerational conflict, health and social care, and retirement and pensions, to name a few, already occupy a prominent place in media and public discourse. So why should gerontologists not play a more prominent role in these public discussions? We are, after all, in a unique position to contribute to this dialogue.
The conference featured excellent guidance on how we might go about sharing our research in formats suitable for public engagement. It also featured inspiring examples of public engagement from attendees who volunteered ahead of time to share their work. I found myself captivated by a life stories, I constructed a paper plane, balanced on one foot, answered a quiz and hummed along to the popular tunes of three generations. In the process, I learned about ageing in place, educational gerontology, physical activity, housing in later life, and cohort differences in retirement experiences. These presentations were certainly not conventional, but not any less informative. More traditional academic presentations undoubtedly have their place; the point is that we should not be limited by them or let them dictate the range of audiences with whom we might engage. The day clearly illustrated that the leap between the research we conduct and engagement with the wider public is not as wide as we might have imagined.
The day encouraged me to think about how I might share my own work with broader audiences and I challenge all of us working in ageing to do the same.