Public engagement in research: what does it mean and where should you start? 

Public engagement in research is a hot topic within the research community. It’s also part of the wider discussion on research impact and the role of research in society.

But what is public engagement in research? Why does it matter? And perhaps most importantly, how do you start engaging the public with your research? 

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Our 15-minute podcast for researchers, produced in partnership with Vitae, explores these topics and offers up some expert insight. Listen to it below and read on for some of the key highlights…

Read the Public engagement in research podcast transcript.

What is public engagement in research?

There are a few different interpretations of what public engagement means in research. While some see it more as communications with the public about research, more and more people are coming to define it as a two-way conversation. It’s not just about engaging the public once the research is done but involving them along the way. 

This chimes with the definition of public engagement set out by the UK’s National Co-ordinating Centre for 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.” 

Public engagement is multi-faceted. Activities that fall into the public engagement bracket include public outreach and communications, patient involvement, collaborative research, citizen science, community engagement, and more.  

On our podcast, we heard from Lucy Robinson, Citizen Science Program Manager at the Natural History Museum. She explained the concept of citizen science:

“Citizen science is about involving members of the public in scientific research, where they can make an active contribution either by gathering data, analyzing data, gathering samples, posing research questions, that kind of thing. So it’s really where public engagement interfaces with science research. It’s a particular type of public engagement, but it’s also a method of doing research. And the thing with citizen science is that a project has to have both sides for it to be a citizen science project and for it to tick all those boxes.” 

Why does public engagement in research matter?

So now we understand the different ways the public can be engaged in research. But why is it important for you, as a researcher, to get involved?  

Our podcast interviewees all had thoughts to share on this question. Many felt that career progression for researchers is now linked to engaging the public with your research. 

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“I think it’s important for researchers, especially postgraduate researchers to do public engagement events,” said Carla Doolan from the University of Kent. “It gets their profile up. It gets them known in their field, it helps with potential progression for their research career and also for if they want to go into an academic career.” 

“It advances your career,” agreed Kirsty Ross from the University of Strathclyde. “You get very different perspectives on what you’re doing and the importance to the people that you’re doing it for, which is usually your end users, your stakeholders, and members of the public – people who are paying your salary.” 

The idea of showing taxpayers what their money is being spent on was also echoed by Dave Finger from the University of Sheffield Department of Chemistry, and co-chair of UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA).  

“First and foremost, all researchers are supported usually by grants that come from taxpayer money,” he said. “So it is important to tell the public what you’re doing with that money.” 

However, career advancement and obligation to the public were far from the only reasons people gave for why researchers should do public engagement in research.  

“Using non-specialist language is really important,” added Carla Doolan, “because it helps with interdisciplinarity as well. You don’t want to assume that everybody knows all the terms within your relevant field.”  

And perhaps most importantly, Kirsty Ross concluded, “Researchers should do public engagement because it’s fun.” 

There’s lots more on why public engagement in research is important in our free to download Research Impact free guide. 

Getting started with engaging the public in your research

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Hopefully you’re now sold on the benefits of public engagement in research. But if you’ve never done it before, where do you start? Our podcast interviewees were clear that while public engagement is important, it can also be challenging… 

“I think when it comes to the communication of your research, the biggest stumbling block most researchers have is how do I make it accessible without dumbing down?” said Paul Spencer, Research Development Manager at the University of the West of England. “How to tell the story of your research in a way that engages and hooks people in, without having to get too technical.” 

However, it’s not all challenges. With the rise of the internet and social media, a whole host of new communications tools have been put at researchers’ fingertips.  

“There are a lot more tools around now for researchers to use, to reach the public,” said Lucy Robinson. “The internet in particular, and blogs and social media, have opened up a whole raft of new ways that you can reach the public. So it’s good for early career researchers to understand how they can maximize those routes, to get the word out about whatever their passion is, whatever they’re spending three years or more studying.” 

Top tips for communicating your research 

Communicating your research to non-specialist audiences may feel daunting at first. Luckily, our podcast interviewees had some top tips for great communication: 

Work on your elevator pitch 

“You only have a very short window of someone’s attention span,” explained Lucy Robinson. “So really working on your elevator pitch or ‘three minute thesis’. What is your inner snapshot? Why do you go to work? What is the purpose of your research? Explain what you do in normal language. Test it out with family and friends who don’t work in your discipline and see if they understand what you do.”

    Know your audience 

    “It’s being able to understand your audience,” said Helen Blanchett, Subject Specialist for Scholarly Communications working for Jisc. “[You need to] understand the message, tailor that message appropriately to your audience, try to find something memorable that they can relate to in terms of their own experiences.” 

    Don’t overthink it 

    “If you think too much about it, you won’t do it,” said Nazira Albargothy from the University of Southampton and past winner of the Three Minute Thesis competition. “It’s very stressful, but it’s extremely rewarding. And once you have done it, you will be really glad that you did.”  

    Practice makes perfect 

    “I think at first it may seem super scary, but once you get used to it, I think you really realize how important this type of activity is,” explained Maddie Long, past winner of the people’s choice award at the Three Minute Thesis competition. “There’s no right or wrong way of telling people about what you’re doing.” 

    “The more that you can talk about your research in different contexts, the easier it will be to focus on telling a story,” agreed Paul Spencer.  

    There’s lots more on these tips – and how to put them into action – available in our free to download Research Impact free guide. 

    Where to next?

    If you’ve found these tips helpful make sure you look at:

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