The Department’s first Director of Public Engagement

I am now the department’s first Director of Public Engagement. It’s a position which encompasses my previous admin roles of media liaison, website coordinator, faculty external relations and marketing contact, outreach and widening participation champion and academic organiser* of the internal and external seminar series and of our inaugural lectures for new Professors.

The creation of the Public Engagement role brings no particular new powers or benefits (apart from I get to be Director of something, which flatters me). What I hope it does do is signal that the department takes its duties for public service seriously, and give me remit to promote the kind of activities I believe the department should do more of. At this point, I wanted to write something about what, for me, the principles of public engagement are.

First, public engagement signifies a kind of public service which is wider than the ‘Impact’ agenda. At the moment the government funding model for Universities has prioritised measurable economic benefits which arise from specific research outputs (i.e. from academic papers). This means that if you publish a research paper on widget manufacture, and a local business consequently is able to up its Widget production from £100k of widgets per year, to £200k of widgets you have had impact. If you spend thirty years synthesising the values and methods of a domain of enquiry and write a textbook (or appear on television like Brian Cox) talking about your discipline you have had no impact (what you are doing is not based on a specific unit of research, the outcomes are unclear and hard to measure). For me public engagement captures many of the range of nonspecific, hard to measure benefits of Universities. We are in an immensely privileged position within the University to be able to specialise, to dedicate ourselves to thoroughness, scholarship, discussion and fairness. There is a societal benefit to having spaces committed to these values, it would be a shame if those were eroded because the benefits were hard to measure. So I’m pleased that the University of Sheffield is working hard to celebrate the cultural and intellectual value of Universities, reflected in the good work of our Public Engagement with Research team and things like the Civic University project.

Second, ‘public engagement’ is not ‘public understanding’, nor is it science communication. These two are both wonderful things, in a limited sense, but we’re not here to bludgeon the public with things we think they should understand. Public engagement means talking with people outside of the department, not just telling them things.

Third and finally, there are many publics, rather than one public. Public, for the Psychology Department, means everyone who isn’t a student or colleague. Within that group there will be many different interests – specialists and generalists, bystanders and activists. If we cater our engagement for a ‘general public’ we’re going to miss out on the opportunities to engage with specific individuals and groups in ways that mean our unique strengths as a department can be fully taken advantage of.

That’s probably enough of the theory. In the immediate future I’m going to concentrate on finding out more about what people in our department already do in terms of Public Engagement, and pursue a few specific plans: making sure the department supports the Civic University project, growing our new schools programme, organising a set of Inaugural lectures for our new professors and hopefully some events for the upcoming Off The Shelf festival in Sheffield. Watch this space, as they say.

* ‘academic organiser’ of course means that all the real organising is done by our wonderful support staff (for the seminars that’s Liz Carl specifically – thanks Liz!)

3 PhD studentships in decision making

“Decision making under uncertainty: brains, swarms and markets”

The cross-disciplinary neuroeconomics network at the University of Sheffield is seeking applications for PhD studentships as part of the project: “Decision making under uncertainty: brains, swarms and markets”

– Tutition fees at UK/EU rate, annual maintenance at the standard RCUK rate (£13,726 for 2013-14), and a contribution towards research and travel expenses of £1,000 p.a.
– World-leading research environment
– Deadline for applications 15 February, to start between August 1st and December 1st 2013
– Initial enquiries via

Project overview:

How do we make decisions in uncertain situations? And what is the right thing to learn from the outcome of such decisions? Most of our decisions involve insufficient knowledge and a certain degree of risk. To study such decisions comprehensively is the goal of ‘neuroeconomics’, which brings to bear the insights of computational theory, neuroscientific evidence and behavioural experiment. We have assembled a local team of internationally renowned experts in a diversity of disciplines (Computer Science, Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, Psychology and Management). Together we will combine theoretical insights with tests in practical domains to advance the field.
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Project LongArm: Drawing Machines

Sheffield Artist Mattias Jones and team built a drawing machine which implemented a solution to a mathematical algorithm, in the form of a set of straight lines connecting many tens of thousands of points (which in turn were placed based on photographs of the Peak District). The whole installation took about two weeks to draw, and happened as part of the Festival of the Mind at the end of september.

I had a small part in the project because the robot control was based on an algorithm I wrote – basically only the part which told the motors how much to move and when to stop so as to get from point to point while drawing a straight line. You might think this is a funny place for a psychologist to be involved in an art project, but the fundamentals of movement control apply to robots just as they apply to people (that’s why they are fundamentals!).

You can see come great photos of the project by photographer Andy Brown here, and a video of the project here. Interview with Matt here