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  • Writer's pictureJames Piercy

What is Public Engagement?

As a communications and engagement officer my role is to support scientists in their work speaking to and working with schools and public groups. There are 2 activities in my job title, and it is worth exploring the differences between them.

I work in science communication and public engagement. These are closely related but different ways of bringing science to non-expert groups.

Much of my career has been in science communication. Working to inspire, inform and raise awareness of science and engineering topics. From giving simple demonstrations in primary schools and performing at science festivals to highlighting the impact of brain injury.

Demonstrating the strength of paper

Public engagement is different. Now a fundamental part of the research cycle, it involves interactions with public audiences to gather thoughts, opinions and insight into the outcomes and impacts of research. The aim is to have impact not just on the people you talk to but to change researchers views and thoughts on their own work

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) separate science communication and public engagement according to the aim of the activity, or the intended outcomes. There is a useful chart in their PE training handbook.

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement was set up to support engagement by U.K universities and research institutes. They define public engagement as :

"….. 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."

The ‘mutual benefit’ phrase here is important. But, how can interactions with the public help researchers? Sometimes it can be as simple as acting as reminder of why they have chosen their field, speaking to different people can re-ignite a passion for a topic. In other cases it can be used to identify new problems, to explore social impacts and link research and researchers to real world problems.

Public engagement happens in many different ways and I have been involved in a few of these over the years. Here I only have time to touch on couple of the ways that you might do public engagement. There’s more information in the resources at the bottom of the page.

Science cafés offer the chance not just to hear from scientists but to ask questions and

share thoughts on the topic with a group of like-minded people in an informal setting. I was pleased to run the Norwich science café for a time, and enjoyed hosting discussions and presentations on topics such as bionic implants, climate change and animal testing . We now see Pint of Science and Café Scientifique in many towns and cities across the world.

Focus groups are another way to do public engagement. Those conducted for the Science Horizons project set out to gather public views on specific science developments and used these views to inform research funding priorities for government.

Domestic robots. Good or bad? Science Horizons -Graphic Science

Focus groups can feed into Intensive dialogue projects such as the one carried out by the John Innes Centre in 2015 inform strategy and future research priorities for organisations.

Public engagement is an important activity for research institutes, universities and companies but it is not always easy. It involves careful audience targeting, clear messages and most importantly a commitment to listen and respond to the views of public groups. If public engagement is to be meaningful and valuable it must have the power to change the thoughts and behaviours of researchers as well as including and enlightening the public.

Why do institutes like the John Innes Centre do Public Engagement?

· To be accountable: Showing how public money is spent and guiding research towards the needs and expectations of society

· To demonstrate the values of the organisation: Showing a commitment to dialogue and mutual benefit, underlies the institute’s values of working for the common good.

· To be trusted: Being part of the debate on social and ethical implications of research and listening to the public improves acceptance of research outcomes and protects the right to explore new topics

· To be relevant: Keeping researchers in touch with public opinion and attitudes. Respecting the insights and experiences of the public improves the clarity and relevance of research

· To be responsive: Acknowledging and listening to a wide range of stakeholders allows researchers to build lasting relationships and adapt future priorities to meet needs and develop solutions together.

These are complex and overlapping aims but we can define public engagement in simpler terms. When I applied for my current job I was asked ‘what is the difference between communication and engagement?’ My answer? ‘Science communication is about talking. Public Engagement is about listening’

Further reading

Public Engagement training - The Handbook BBSRC

What is Public Engagement NCCPE

UKRI vision for Public Engagement

What’s in it for me? -The benefits of public engagement for researchers UKRI

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