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Things 14: Public Engagement and You

Updated: May 4, 2023

Who is your public and how can you engage them (and why)?

Dr Mike Rose, Research Development Training Officer and Ross Kelway, Public Engagement Manager, University of Surrey

Elderly lady in a sari reading a newspaper. She’s probably not listening
Yes, yes, go on dear, I’m listening (Photo by Manoj Kulkarni on Unsplash)


In the UK, the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) uses the following broad definition of public engagement:

"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."

This is a very inclusive definition, but it is notable that stress is laid on the ‘two-way’ part of public engagement; we’re better off not thinking of ‘the public’ as a passive recipient of our expertise, but as partners who make our work better or more worthwhile. The next logical step from there is that there’s no such thing as ‘the public’ but that we should think more carefully about different groups for whom what we do is important or interesting. This might mean regional, ethnic, religious or occupational groups, people affected by a specific issue (such as a disease), different stages of life or career, special interests (such as charities or environmental groups), organisations, or governmental departments. Quite a list!

So how do you choose who is relevant to you?

There may be an obvious audience for your work, or you might have to be a little more inventive. Here are some aspects to consider:

  • Who do you already know? If you are already working with a group – studying a community, working with an industry partner, for example – these will naturally be interested in what you’re doing. They are also likely to feel it is important that they have some input into your research, so can be a great resource for you. Similarly, are there networks that you already have strong connections with through your previous work or your own community? Having those contacts can make it a lot easier to enthuse people about what you do or recruit participants. Examples might include charities, church and religious groups, local government, arts and community groups, local institutions, scholarly networks and your own friends and peers. (Or how about the 23Things forum?)

  • Learn from others. To save yourself reinventing the wheel, see what other projects have done – have you seen particularly effective websites, events or legacy resources? What makes some projects stand out from the crowd? It is especially valuable to consider whether anyone else has worked with the public you have in mind. Seek their advice if you can – it might save you a lot of time, and can open doors to important contacts. You may also consider partnering with an organisation such as a charity who can help you connect and deliver your plans (Perhaps there’s someone in your pod or on the forum it would be handy to connect with!)

  • What will my public(s) want? It’s important not to presume that your research will automatically be fascinating to others, or that the language we normally use to describe our technical projects will make much sense to others. Try to put yourself in the place of your intended public: what will they already know or need to know, for the research to make sense? Which aspects are relevant to them? What will they gain by engaging?

  • Have a real plan. The best public engagement is planned alongside the research, not added on at the end. In fact, you may need to start building links with your intended public before starting your research at all, especially if it will be important or challenging to create a trusting relationship with groups or individuals. Think through the practicalities, the ethical considerations, and the resources/costs of your ideas. Think about what you want to learn from your public, not just what they can learn from you. This Community Engagement toolkit may come in handy.

What’s driving you to do all this extra work?

Click here and contribute to our wordcloud. What motivates you (or could motivate you) to get involved in public engagement?

Some resources for conceptualising your engagement:

The Public Engagement Onion – the many layers to consider!

When should I engage?

It’s never too late or too early to think about public engagement. The right time to devote your energies to this will vary a lot depending on your project. It’s true that planning your engagement in advance will make this much easier and more valuable, but sometimes unexpected opportunities will present themselves, such as a timely event you can speak at, or an exhibition space for your creative responses to research (see THING 11).

Even better, public engagement can be a co-production with your research, rather than an addition to it - it may be that the most interesting or important part of your activity is this public effect or contribution. Starting from this perspective also makes it easier to build a really solid scheme.

Resource: see N8 Research Partnership or NIHR for some definitions of co-production.

Some funding bids will require an ‘impact plan’ or ‘pathway to impact’, so you should carefully consider what you plan to do, how you will show success or failure in the plan, what you plan to do with any data you collect, and how much it will cost. Also consider any ethics applications you’ll need - especially if you collect data from participants - and how you’ll demonstrate impact through evaluations.

Always factor in your own ability to complete your engagement – have you considered travel times, suitable venues, any insurance or catering requirements?

lonely figure in the middle distance, standing in a field of wheat
Perhaps there were better locations for my focus group of hayfever sufferers (Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash)

Top Tips for successful engagement

  • Plan and do preparatory work to maximise the impact of your efforts. The Engagement Triangle

  • Research other projects

  • Check you have the skills and resources you’ll need

  • Reflect on whether you’re using the best method to get the results / data / effect you’re after. (A lecture or podcast will reach many people; a workshop will have deeper engagement with a smaller number. Do you have a long-term legacy in mind, or is this a one-off action?)

  • Evaluation is crucial. How will you measure success? Questionnaires, interviews, polls, attendance numbers, site views and comments, evidence to committees, media work, publications (including non-academic), interaction data (such as an exhibit at a festival)….

  • Don’t let it go to waste. Make sure you squeeze the best from this commitment, that you learn from your successes and challenges. Have a good data management plan for future use [THING 12]

  • Think about how this work can be valuable to you elsewhere – career/CV, experience, professional profile.

There are many great examples you can learn from, but we’ll include a link to one here that has developed brilliant community involvement and citizen science for sometime, based at University of Surrey, and our Global Centre for Clean Air Research.

We hope you’re raring to go in your next public engagement project. Why not share some of your own experience in the comments below?

Click here to contribute to this wordcloud – what opportunities can you think of for public engagement?

Pod Discussion

  • What’s your previous experience with public engagement?

  • Are you working on a project now?

  • Can your pod help you take your ideas global?

A large festival crowd enjoying the show – hands in the air and fuzzy stage lighting
YES! Tell us more about your work on microbial semi-conductors in Victorian long-fiction! (Photo by Tijs van Leur on Unsplash)

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Membro desconhecido
26 de mai. de 2023

Pint of sciene is a good way to engage with public. It is very informal yet informative. Home | Pint of Science


Jeetendra Sahani
Jeetendra Sahani
24 de mai. de 2023
Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

For public engagement, a 3-minute thesis is a good example. I tried but wasn't selected for finals. We have gig-presentation also in Surrey where researchers present their research in a funny manner to the public in a general setting like a pub/bar. I was too scared to participate as I lack acting, and could not really think of presenting my research in a funny manner. Anyways, this post will help me, but at the same time the audience, purpose, and your inner skills really matter in deciding our way of presenting. I think I can't act much or think of many other engaging ways but over time perhaps I will learn. I think actors must be very good at presentation,…


Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

Great post, Mike! Thank you. My supervisors reckon I should also make an effort to disseminate my research beyond academia. So your tips are certainly handy.


Membro desconhecido
11 de mai. de 2023

The more an academic is engaged, the more s/he can feel the impact. I can tell I like everything that has engagement on it as I see engagement at the heart of academia and a bridge that brings both research (academia) and industry a bit closer together. I really liked the statement that we academics should not think of the public as less informed but we need to think of engagement as a two-way process, a continuum in which both parties are concerned and both can affect each other - while there is a space for innovation, participation, and engagement for the public. One good thing I have recently discovered in Surrey is the so-called public outreach - not sur…


Membro desconhecido
09 de mai. de 2023

Public engagement is crucial for an impactful research. But it's practically very challenging to do in a complicated community and scenario. Some smart and innovative approaches may be required to achieve needed success. Many of them have been demonstrated here, thanks to Make.

I'm still brainstorming on new ways to engage for a bigger impact.

Hey! Let's engage.

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