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Things 17: Public Engagement and You

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

Dr Mike Rose, Research Strategy Business Partner, University of Bath

Rob Cooper, Public Engagement Officer, University of Bath

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)

This Thing considers the growing importance of making our research accessible beyond academia – sharing outcomes, involving non-academics in research, and demonstrating the value of what we do for society. This has been of growing interest for several years, and is increasingly asked for (and supported) by research funders and institutions. The challenge is that it’s no longer enough to simply say you’ll give a lecture about your project after it’s finished!

In this blog we’ll look at a couple of ways of thinking about public engagement, consider the different kinds of publics you may wish to connect with, and some practical tips for any such undertaking. Your guides are Rob Cooper (Public Engagement Officer, University of Bath), Mike Rose (Research Strategy Business Partner, University of Bath) and Ross Kelway (Public Engagement Manager, University of Surrey).


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 Discord?)

  • 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!)

  • Join existing projects. Also think about what’s already being done that you could contribute to, rather than necessarily starting from scratch. You can use the ideas and structures from an existing project to hone your own skills before committing to something further, while contributing to other worthwhile projects. How better than to learn by doing? Festivals like the Festival of Social Science, Futures (European Researchers Night), Being Human and others can provide a good opportunity.

  • 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? This guide can help to write up an attractive project description to spark interest and find volunteers.

  • 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.

  • Understand the support available to you. Remember that many universities are keen to foster public engagement and even have dedicated teams to help make it happen. Organising events, for example, is a complicated and professional business; don’t underestimate the work involved, or the support that’s there for you. At University of Bath, for example, the Public Engagement Team can assist with organisation, marketing, logistics and linking you to exiting events, so you can concentrate on your engagement activities.

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:

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.

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.

  • Think about how this work can be valuable to you elsewhere – career/CV, experience, professional profile, networking, or media work (talk to your institution’s marketing or press team). There are also several awards and small grants you may be eligible for, such as those from the Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology The NCCPE pages have updates for current (UK) funding opportunities.

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?

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?

  • Where might public engagement be relevant to your pod’s sustainable development goal?

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)

Mike Rose is Research Strategy Business Partner at University of Bath, and will happily talk to anyone about philosophy, literature, great coffee and terrible puns.

Rob Cooper is a public engagement professional at the University of Bath, a trade union activist in Unison and loves dinosaurs.

Ross Kelway is the “other” Public Engagement Manager at the University of Surrey and is busy advocating PE as a professional practice and definitely not a hobby!

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