What is public engagement anyway?

By Kimberley Freeman,  Executive Officer for Public Engagement, and Manager of the Centre for Public Engagement at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

“No-one really knows, right?”

Actually, we have a pretty good idea what we mean when we talk about public engagement, but this topic of conversation still seems to crop up on a regular basis. I think there are a number of reasons for this, which are interesting to explore.

Is there a definition?

The closest thing to an “official” national definition comes from the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE):

“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.”

There is some background on how they came up with this definition on the NCCPE’s webpages.

The NCCPE has gathered information and learning on public engagement since it was created in 2008, following the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative, which set out to improve and embed support for public engagement in universities across the UK.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – any definition which includes the phrase “myriad of ways” is problematic, and you’re not wrong. But this isn’t a problem with the concept of public engagement (at least not to my mind), but a problem of trying to define something which can look very different depending on why, where, and when it is happening.

The bit to focus on here is “two-way” and “mutual benefit”. It’s these characteristics which truly define public engagement, especially public engagement with research and teaching within higher education and research establishments in the UK.

What’s in a name?

The term “public engagement” has issues (see also PPI, which to many of us means Patient Public Involvement and to others means Payment Protection Insurance), like any specialist term made up of regularly used words, people will interpret it in different ways and assume we are all talking about the same thing, until it appears we weren’t. When this realisation comes towards the end of a three year, multi-million pound research project, you are probably in trouble.

However, attempting to fix this by redefining it, or trying to come up with a new name for it doesn’t really help. Debating this issue constantly doesn’t help us move the sector forward, it holds us back.

The term has it’s history in an attempt to move away from deficit model communication activities (the idea that the public have a deficit of knowledge about research, and all you need to do is “educate” them), towards engagement which seeks to include non-academic voices in research practice and connect people to research in more meaningful ways.

Why are we doing this anyway?

For the purpose of this blog post, let’s focus our conversations on engagement with active research and teaching, in research and higher education institutions in the UK. So far so good. The national definition is helpful, but perhaps a little bit vague? The good news is each university or research institute (if they have thought about this kind of thing), will have a local definition to help you work out what they are interested in supporting. Likewise, the research councils or funders will most likely have a view on what kind of activity is most important to them.

This variation can be confusing, and as an academic who might work across a range of institutions, on research funded by a range of different funders, knowing who to listen to can be difficult. However, this isn’t an example of people “not knowing” what public engagement is – rather an illustration of the fact that each institution will be undertaking or supporting these activities for different reasons.

Research councils and funders may want to engage and involve the “public” in the research they fund as it is funded by public money. Universities may want to support these activities in order to improve research and teaching, produce innovative assessment methods as part of their teaching, improve the student experience, or give their staff and students valuable transferable skills.

I highly recommend What’s in it for me? The benefits of public engagement for researchers if you want to read more about why as an academic you might want to undertake public engagement activities.

Quite often these different definitions of public engagement are just descriptions of what kinds of activity that organisation is most keen on supporting – not a fundamental disagreement on what public engagement actually is.

Why is it so hard to describe?

Public engagement activities can take a whole host of different forms – a “myriad” if you will…

This is because at the heart of it is a process which asks a series of questions. The questions stay largely the same, but the answers will always be different – and it’s the answers which dictate what the engagement ends up actually looking like.

Why? (Why are you engaging with the “public”? What do you want to achieve?)

Who? (Who do you want to engage with?)

How? (Based on your answers to the previous two questions, what methods might work?)

You could ask these same questions to a hundred different researchers, doing a hundred different projects, and the answers would be different every time, leading to radically different engagement activities. That’s why defining public engagement by what the end product looks like is so difficult.

Wait, how does this relate to “Impact”?

This is where that “two-way” bit from earlier comes in. When we talk about public engagement we often talk about it being a spectrum with “one-way” engagement at one end (to my mind, this overlaps with communications) where information is flowing in one direction, from the researchers to the “public”, at the other end of the spectrum is a more consultation-based approach, where information is flowing from the “public” to the researchers. In the middle is the bit where all the really exciting things happen, where information is flowing both ways, and both sides of this conversation are listening and learning – that’s what we mean when we talk about “mutual benefit”.

This means for it to be truly exciting public engagement, both sides of the conversation are changing. This needs a commitment from both sides, and works best when this is in balance. You’ll notice a lot of public engagement funding schemes will ask you to describe the benefits to the research or researchers, as well as to any public participants.

This makes it fundamentally different from activities aimed at generating “Impact” in REF terms, which is primarily interested in demonstrating change outside of academia. Public engagement should aim to generate as much change inside academia as it generates outside. That said, public engagement activities can lead to Impact under the REF criteria, and a number of successful Impact case studies submitted for REF2014 included public engagement elements. The NCCPE did some very helpful analysis on this, which they ran a number of sessions on last year.

Who are this “public” anyway?

I’ve spent the past ten years working in communications, website design, publications, science communication and public engagement roles, and seem to have spent the whole time saying “there is no such thing as the general public”. Often, the public we refer to in “public engagement” refers to anyone outside of academia. You’ll often hear us use the term “publics” – and yes, I know it sounds horrible, but it’s a useful shorthand to describe the fact that the “public” is actually made of up lots of different groups and individuals.

The more targeted your engagement activities are, the more chance they have of succeeding. You can’t meaningfully engage with everyone, all at once. Defining a target audience will help you to plan activities which work well for that group. What works for one group of people, won’t necessarily work for another group.

If the essence of public engagement is mutual benefit, then you must be willing to listen and change as much as you are hoping to change others, and have them listen to you.

“Can you point me at a peer reviewed, published article on how to do this?”


(I mean, I probably could – but I don’t want to).

A big part of successful public engagement is realising that knowledge generated outside of academia can be valid and of use. One obvious example is that the knowledge of living with a medical condition for 20 years can be as valid and useful in some circumstances as the knowledge of that condition developed by a researcher studying that condition for 20 years. They are different, but when you combine them both parties can benefit.

The same is true of public engagement. A lack of published papers on the subject does not mean we don’t know what it is or how to do it, it just means the sector shares knowledge in a different way – and that doesn’t make it less valid or useful.

There IS an active research community publishing on public engagement best practice and related subjects, but this is only capturing a small part of the knowledge and experience we have developed over the past 15 years or so, on how to deliver and support public engagement activities in research and higher education institutions in the UK.

This looks different for each academic subject, surely?

Yes, and no. Different academic subjects tend to have different public engagement cultures, but I for one think there is a lot to be gained from sharing experience of public engagement across different subjects. Techniques and ideas developed in one subject can sometimes be useful when engaging with other subjects too.

Engagement activities in medical research can often feel very direct. Take the example of Birdshot Day, where a group of patients helped to identify and define new research questions, then helped to make that research possible. Researchers in other subjects often tell me they don’t feel “two-way” engagement is possible with their subject. I respectfully disagree. It may not feel as direct as the Birdshot day example, but by listening to a wide range of people you may find your research develops in new ways you couldn’t have imagined before you made those connections.

Let’s consider mathematics, or physics – these subjects are often described as only being able to do “one-way” public engagement. Many mathematicians and physicists I’ve worked with have been incredibly creative individuals, coming up with elegant solutions to complex problems. Much like any creative subject, inspiration can come from a wide range of sources, and isolating yourself from everyone other than other academics or students in your field is likely to be less enjoyable and less inspirational than working with and listening to a broader group of people. It may not be as simple as asking non-academic groups what they think of your research, and the influence the engagement has on the research may be more subtle than it seems in other subjects, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be “two-way” or provide a benefit for both researcher and public alike.

“Yes, but we don’t REALLY know how to do it, do we?”

Some of us do…

There is a lack of evaluation in the sector. So many public engagement projects are poorly planned, and seem to have no clear purpose. Better evaluation would help us learn from mistakes and prevent others from making them all over again.

Some people really don’t know how to do it. Public engagement support is patchy, and often underfunded, under resourced, and undervalued. This can lead to people being hired to public engagement support roles for which they are not qualified, and where they are not supported once they are in post. The London PEN was created in part to address this issue, but it can only do so much. The sector is losing experienced staff at an alarming rate, and those people are taking their knowledge and expertise with them. Until public engagement support is more highly valued by those making recruitment and funding decisions, we may find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The importance of culture change…

The Beacons for Public Engagement initiative aimed to shift higher education and research institutes in the UK towards a culture where public engagement was valued, rewarded and embedded. To do this, the first step on that journey is often to try anything which moves the institution in that general direction. That may mean taking part in public engagement activities which aren’t great, but do provide learning opportunities, or a chance for researchers to develop valuable skills which will enable them to include public engagement in their research and teaching in the future. This is fine as a first step, but we have to keep pushing and move beyond this initial dipping of our collective toes in the water if we are going to see any real progress.

(The NCCPE’s Edge Tool is a useful example of how to talk about this)

Are we ambitious enough?

No. The Beacons for Public Engagement initiative was nearly ten years ago now, and while we have taken a great many steps forward, we have also taken several backwards.

If we limit ourselves to thinking we don’t really know what public engagement is, or that it isn’t possible in some subjects, we restrict ourselves to what feels “safe” and we waste valuable time doing the same thing over and over again.

What can we do to help?

The London PEN was created as a mechanism for sharing learning and supporting public engagement professionals across London. The more we can do to recognise the value public engagement can have to research and teaching, and value those who help to make it happen, the more we will learn and the less likely we are to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Yes, public engagement is a problematic term at times, and it seems difficult to define at first glance – but there is method behind what might look like madness. With over 15 years of reflective practice, research, and learning behind us, we need to keep moving forward rather than spending so much of our time redefining what we mean by public engagement and trying to reinvent the wheel.

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