Imperial College London

Engagement in a pandemic – reflections from Engagement Week 2021


Illustrated wording reading "Engagement Week"

130 members of staff took part in Engagement Week to learn and share insights into how the College can better engage society with its work.

Engagement Week 2021 sought to reflect on a year that brought both disruption and opportunity for engaging wider audiences with research. It was also an opportunity to look ahead and explore how research institutions can and should engage society in times of change. 

"It was great to be able to get together and hear about new projects, talk about what’s worked, and find inspiration for what’s next.” Amy Seakins Engagement Manager (Capacity Building and Evaluation)

“We were delighted that so many staff could join for Engagement Week. Like everything, public engagement has changed so much over the past year. It was great to be able to get together and hear about new projects, talk about what’s worked, and find inspiration for what’s next,” said Amy Seakins, Engagement Manager within the Public Engagement team

Usually a one-day, in-person event, the Public Engagement team adapted the format of the conference, running events online across three half-days. As well as a plethora of Zoom and Teams-based talks, panels and workshops, attendees were encouraged to network on a dedicated channel and share their own engagement projects in a virtual poster showcase. 

Are we looking for impact in the right places? 

Portrait photograph of Fozia IrfanFozia Irfan delivered a fascinating and thought-provoking keynote. Fozia is the Director for Children and Young People at BBC Children in Need and is responsible for ensuring that donations are distributed with the greatest impact for young people in the UK. In her work, being able to measure and evidence this impact is essential. But how, she asks, does this focus on measurement affect the way an intervention or engagement activity is designed, and which activities are valued within the wider landscape?   

Often we define an impact as a ‘positive change’ - a direct effect of an action we have taken. This change tends to be defined by the funder. Fozia asked what if we valued what exists rather than only what changes when we think about impact? In the work of Children In Need, this might include sustaining trusted relationships, nurturing connection, and creating safe and welcoming spaces. What if we valued our contributions amongst a range of other factors, rather than seeking direct attribution or cause-and-effect? And really listened and worked with our audiences to understand and redefine what matters.   

These insights and perspective shared by Fozia shared striking similarities to the reflections of many working in societal engagement. “Fozia articulated things that I had been feeling but hadn't quite yet been able to put into words. Her commitment to doing right by young people is inspiring,” one attendee said. In her talk, Fozia also covered power dynamics and equity – urging us to consider who holds power within our engagement activities and whether they are meeting needs of a funder or their audience, what kinds of expertise are valued, and whether we are creating an equitable space. 

Engagement Week 2021 - Keynote speech with Fozia Irfan

Resilience and crises in culture and engagement 

On day two of Engagement Week, attendees heard from Rachel Mackay. She has 20 years' experience in the cultural sector and a passion for enabling attractions to provide great visitor experiences. As well as Manager at the Historic Royal Palaces, Kew, she is also the Founder of The Recovery Room [] - a platform that’s helping heritage charities rebuild and recover after the COVID-19 shutdowns. Her research analyses how museums and heritage organisations have responded to the pandemic from a crisis management perspective. 

She shared fascinating insights into the cultural sector's experience of the pandemic from a crisis management perspective. Her research findings stress the importance of flexibility, adaptability and good internal communication. Organisations that exerted these values and skills were found to be the most successful in bouncing back between lockdowns. Collaboration was also a key theme as Rachel described how the entire sector came together to critically reflect on their activities in the face of a pandemic so they could grow and emerge stronger.  

Communicating science during a pandemic 

A panel on the final day saw Andy Ridgway and Dr Nicola Lang in conversation with Dr Felicity Mellor - Senior Lecturer and Course Director for Imperial’s MSc Science Communication. 

Andy has been a journalist for over 20 years and is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of the West of England. He shared insights from his current research into how people have been interpreting the information they've received during the pandemic. His results highlight the importance of individual context, pre-existing beliefs and personal understandings of the world. He also touched on his own experiences as a science reporter during the past year, citing a heightened sense of duty to both science and the public to ‘get it right’. He also discussed how conflicts in scientific opinion are reported in the media and how journalists have fine-tuned their interpretation of balanced reporting to better reflect scientific consensus. 

Nicola is the Director of Public Health in Hammersmith and Fulham. She has led the borough’s response to the pandemic alongside other public health initiatives and shared conversations she’s had with local underserved groups about health and wellbeing. She was reminded that for many, the virus was just one of many health and social concerns – from knife crime to homelessness. Nicola echoed Andy’s points that individual context – whether religious, cultural, or socioeconomic - played a huge part in individuals’ experiences of the pandemic.  

The panel also discussed trust in scientists, whether social media was a hero or villain in science communication, and the power of art to render science more understandable and relatable. 

Engagement case studies 

As well as sharing varied insights and perspectives from outside Imperial, Engagement Week sought to bring together learning, experiences and inspiration from within the College. Attendees heard five fast-paced lightning talks about different engagement projects from colleagues: 

  • Graduate Management Trainee, Fola Afolabi shared a project she worked on with the Patient Experience Research Centre. They partnered with theatre company Burnt Orange and recruited teams of young creatives to generate videos about young people’s experience of the pandemic, inspired by Imperial’s COVID-19 research. The videos can be found here.
  • Andrew Brooks, Engagement Practitioner for White City, shared his work with the Public and Community Engagement teams creating over 2100 science activity packs and distributing them to local families and community groups. The team are planning to distribute a further 1000 packs over the school summer holidays. 
  • Imperial alumnus Finn Strivens shared a virtual card game he created with collaborators from Earth Science and Engineering, that aims to help young people imagine futures in relation to geoscience. 
  • Members of the Outreach team shared insights into how they ran Imperial's Sutton Trust Summer School entirely online, enabling students to gain an insight into what university life is like and meet current students and fellow young people. 
  • Second-year medical student Varsha Krishnan shared her experience taking part in the Public Engagement Horizons module and interviewing a researcher as part of Imperial Lates Online.

Find out more about these engagement projects here.

Skills and practical tips 

As well as a fantastic lineup of talks, Engagement Week featured interactive workshops to explore and nurture some of the key skills for engagement work. Creative workshops covered illustrative lettering and poetry, and attendees took part in sessions exploring how museums have adapted through the pandemic, how to present and build connections with audiences online and learn more about digital access and exclusion. 

"I was inspired by the illustrative lettering at Engagement Week. As well as being a creative break, it prompted me to think about how we could use a similar format in an Earth Sciences societal engagement session. We are now planning to develop an outreach activity that incorporates illustration with geological field sketching," said Victoria Murphy, Liaison and Communications Manager for Earth Science and Engineering. 

Some of the practical tips and advice can be found in the Public Engagement team’s regular masterclasses or in their engagement toolkit full of guides and resources. 


Ellie Cawthera

Ellie Cawthera
Office of the Provost

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Public-engagement, Outreach, Societal-engagement
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