A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on public engagement by Steve Cross at our University. While not knowing what to expect at first, I came back from the workshop motivated and impressed with the amount of time, energy, and infrastructure put into encouraging scientists to engage the public here in the UK. I also found myself for the first time actually thinking about what public engagement really is, thanks to the resources and exercises Steve provided in the workshop. The workshop helped me form a concrete understanding of public engagement and the steps needed to make it successful. For this week’s post, I’ll touch on some of the highlights of the workshop, provide some resources n public engagement, and hopefully inspire some of you to take on the challenge of getting involved in some engagement activities this summer.
Universities here in the UK are putting a lot of time and energy into public engagement. Not only are there diverse approaches and a large volume of activities, but there is also formally agreed-upon definitions and structures. At first it might seem a bit overblown: why do we need flow charts and 5-year institute plans when public engagement is just about talking to the public about your research. Right? As it turns out, public engagement is much more complicated than just telling people what you’re research is-at least if the goal of the interaction is to actually become involved in conversations and even collaborate with members of the public.
So what exactly is public engagement? You can find the answer to this and many other questions on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, which also has a wealth of information about how you can get your own engagement activities up and running. On their ‘what is public engagement’ page, you can find the definition:
"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."
I’ve highlighted the part of the definition that’s key to understand how to put on engaging activities and events. This is why it’s not good enough to just put your papers or your findings out there for the public to see. If you can’t hear back from them, see things from their perspective, or get ideas on what it means and where things can go next, then can you really call it engagement? Below is a simple diagram I developed based on the workshop and the definition above, showing how ideas should go back and forth during public engagement activities, and how collaboration comes only when information has been transmitted and received on both ends. Obviously you have to start somewhere in the dialogue, which is generally in transmitting your ideas to the public, but the key is to engage in such a way as to provide an opening for them to transmit back to you.
Why should we do public engagement?
During the workshop we were asked to come up with reasons for why public engagement was worthwhile. We came up with quite a long list, and you can find other answers here as well. Highlights from our list include:
Personal: Feels good to take part in these types of activities
Educational: For both parties, learning can take place whenever there is an exchange of ideas
Moral: Research uses taxpayer money so there should be an obligation to give back to the community that enabled us to do the research in the first place
Business: If it’s required or encouraged, then at some point you’ll need to do it to get grants
Academic: It’s a place to get new ideas and collaborations while increasing your personal profile
While this all sounds well and good, there are certainly limitations in the way that research is done at the moment that may make it hard to find the time or the infrastructure for these types of activities. For starters, you need to align your aims with those of your research group, institute, or university in order to get a bigger organization on your side, instead of just doing something on your own. For many, it’s likely difficult to find the spare time when public engagement is not explicitly part of your job. In a survey from 2006, 64% of scientists said that the need to spend time on research kept them from doing public engagement-and 20% even said that peers who did this type of work were looked down upon by their colleagues because they were wasting time which could have gone to more papers.
How to engage the public
Since you only have a small amount of spare time in the day to do non-research ‘work’, you’ll want to be efficient about it. In the workshop, Steve gave us a great model for how to think about public engagement activities. His mantra is to avoid focusing on the activity (e.g. ‘it would be really nice to do seminars with Q&A for non-scientists every other Thursday), but instead to think of the aim of the public engagement as well as who the audience will be. Identify your audience and an activity to address a specific set of goals and aims.
Steve also provided a great template for thinking about the two-way aspects of the activity. Once you’ve established the aims and the audience, you can think about how your activity provides specific outcomes for both parties involved. For example, in the ‘skills’ outcome, if you can only fill in something in one box (e.g., just the audience or just the researchers gain some skill after the activity), then what can you do to try to provide some training or enhance the knowledge of the other group?
When working on a project for our own institute’s public engagement group, I found the diagram extremely helpful-and it made me realize the project had other outcomes I hadn’t considered when when I was drafting the idea. It’s also a nice way to visualize exactly what you’re giving to your audience, and to see the possibilities for enabling and empowering people with your activity, which can certainly be a motivator on its own. Another take-home that I got from this workshop is that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once. You can do small things to empower groups one event at a time. Even if the level of empowerment is just a few take-home facts, a small amount of knowledge added up over time can amount to a lot.
Who is the public?
While talking about public engagement, it may seem trivial to take a step back and define what ‘the public’ actually is. During the workshop, it quickly became apparent that the public is not a single entity, nor one that can be talked to or interacted consistently. The public is a diverse, heterogeneous set of people with varying interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Part of the workshop involved brainstorming specific audiences for events and thinking about who would actually turn up to a public engagement event. For example, events held at museums will have a different group of people depending on the time of the week and the day. If you’re there on a Saturday afternoon versus a Monday morning versus a Thursday museum late-night event, the primary groups at each of those will be different, so the approaches used at each event to engage with people should also be different.
It soon became clear that when thinking of the audience before drafting an activity that we can’t assume the audience is ‘everyone’, and as part of the workshop we were given an exercise about tailoring approaches based on the demographic and their interests. Our group had to construct a persona of a young couple on holiday who came to the museum and saw our science outreach activity, and we had to imagine the their attributes in terms of their interests, free-time activities, media consumed, brands, favorite foods/film/books/games, emotional needs, and life stage. The exercise felt like being an advertising executive, but breaking things down in this way helped us see the barriers as well as the ‘ins’ to a person’s perspectives that could help drive a message home. It helped us see how we could meet people where they are and made us appreciate how events are promoted to target certain groups and who might see and share things based on where they’re advertised.
Making science communication count: get out there!
Public engagement is not limited by public interest, and it still seems that the public has the impression that scientists put too little effort to tell the public about their work. Even in 2016, when scientists are embracing social media and new outlets for communication, there might still be a residual ivory tower mindest that is holding us back from sharing our research. Given that the public is hungry for science, we as scientists should work to give it to them! You can start off by finding events already happening in either your research community, university, or city-whether there’s a museum you can volunteer at or a school that’s looking for a scientist to talk to primary school students about ecology, there’s always a way to find events to connect yourself with. Think about what you already enjoy doing, whether it be writing, working with kids, organizing or participating in debates, or making creative and colorful visuals, and look for ways to incorporate your talents and interests to events and activities already happening. Then when you’ve had your feet wet, think about why you want to make a change in something, who you want to reach, and what you can do to get there.