What is Public Engagement?

James Piercy has worked in science communication for over 20 years.

His first role, in 1995, was as explainer and presenter in a small science centre in Norwich. Through the development of simple demonstration science shows for primary school aged children, James developed his personal style of presentation and learnt key skills in directing audience attention, managing groups and controlling voice and body language.

The shift in emphasis from communication to ‘dialogue’ following the Jenkins report (2000) led to the development of a local science café, which James coordinated in Norwich, and increased links with researchers in academia and industry.

James joined the John Innes Centre in August 2017 as Communication and Engagement Officer, supporting and facilitating science communication and engagement events. He provides skills training and mentoring for staff wishing to develop their communication skills.

We asked him, what is public engagement?

“As Communications and Engagement Officer my role is to support scientists in their work speaking to and working with schools and public groups.

It is important that there are two parts to my job title, and in this blog we’ll explore the differences between those parts.

Before we unpick the jargon it is worth expanding my job title a little. I work in science communication and public engagement. These are closely related but different ways of bringing science to non-expert groups.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) separate these strands according to the aim of the activity, or your intended outcomes. There is a useful chart in their PE training handbook if you are interested in this.

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.

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 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.

So, 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 will touch on a couple of the ways that you might do public engagement, and I will highlight why you might want to build public engagement into your research. There’s more information in the resources at the bottom of the page, or you can follow the links in the text.

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.

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, nor is it always easy to do it well.

Good public engagement 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.

There are 5 reasons commonly given to carry out public engagement.

  1. Accountability Showing how public money is spent and guiding research towards the needs and expectations of society
  2. Values and purpose Demonstrating a commitment to dialogue and mutual benefit, underlies the institutes values of working for the common good.
  3. Trust Being part of the debate on social and ethical implications of research and listening to public improves acceptance of research outcomes and protects the right to explore new topics
  4. Relevance Keeping researchers in touch with public opinion and attitudes. Respecting the insights and experiences of the public improves the clarity and relevance of research
  5. Responsiveness 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’

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