Regardless of the discipline that you study or your level of experience, there is a responsibility for researchers to ensure that they are engaging public audiences with their research, and today there are more opportunities than ever to get involved.
Public engagement is a phrase that has been pushing its way into the consciousness of UK research since the House of Lords Science and Technology – Third Report in 2000, but it is absolutely not limited to science. HEFCE, RCUK and Vitae are all signed up to a “strategic commitment to public engagement”, so it is clear that public engagement is important to all areas of research.
At its most simplistic, public engagement is a conversation with a public audience about research. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement says:
Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.
Note that public engagement is a two-way process. If we want to change how people think, act and feel about research, then we have to have a conversation with them. There must be give and take. If you are doing public engagement correctly, it will change the way you think about your research.
That sounds awfully hand-wavy…
It does, doesn’t it?! But consider this – who are the stakeholders for your research, and who is paying for it? If what you are doing could have an impact on people, then how can you know how they will feel about what you are doing unless you ask them? Similarly if your research is publically funded, then you have a responsibility to share your findings with the public and explain why your research was a good use of limited resources.
But my research isn’t very interesting to the public…
I have heard this excuse SO MANY TIMES. If you are a social scientist you are immediately banned from using this excuse because your research is about people. Same if you are a medical researcher or your research has medical applications. The arts are created by people, so there are public stakeholders out there. Engineering is the creation of technology to help people. What researchers often mean when they say this is “I don’t know how to make my research interesting to a public audience”, which is something you can absolutely do!
OK, you’ve talked me into it, how do I go about doing a public engagement activity?
Well, firstly I’ll tell you what not to do. Don’t think about the activity you want to do before you have thought about the people you want to do it to. Why? If you do an activity which appeals to you, then your audience will consist of either people like you (mostly other researchers), or nobody.
- Identify your audience – be specific! Who are the public stakeholders in your research? What is their interest in your research?
- Plan your activity around your audience – do not ask your audience to do anything they would not normally do. If your audience doesn’t go to comedy nights in Birmingham, then don’t expect to engage them at a Bright Club Birmingham gig. Take your activity to your audience; don’t expect them to come to you.
- Remember, it should be a conversation – you can be as creative as you like in establishing two-way communication with your audience. At the very least they need an opportunity to ask questions, but try to think beyond the academic seminar model. Could you do a piece of theatre? Work with an artist? Start a mass participation research project? Could you even get primary school children to write your research paper for you?
- Evaluate from the beginning – evaluation is not something that you tack on to the end of a project because you think you should. Write down your objective. How do you construct your evaluation to show that you have achieved what you set out to do?
I want to know more!
- Contact the Public Engagement with Research Committee (PERC) at the University of Birmingham.
- Participate in local PE activities, from the annual Arts & Science Festival to Pint of Science or Meet the Expert.
- Access funding to make your public engagement activity happen.
What are your experiences of public engagement? How might you engage the public with your research? Share your thoughts below.