Reading Group: Discussing ‘Public Engagement: a practical guide’

Siobhan Morris, Public Engagement and Events Coordinator for The Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck, summarises discussions from the latest London PEN reading group

For the third London PEN reading group, we chose to discoffee imagecuss ‘Public Engagement: a practical guide’ published in November 2017 by Sense about Science.

The guide, written by members of the Sense about Science public engagement team, is designed as a practical resource for researchers aiming to involve the public in communicating research findings.

The guide focuses specifically on the Understanding Children’s Heart Surgery Outcomes project as a basis for discussion.

Initial points of discussion

The guide prompted plenty of conversation; we began by addressing the content, audience(s), and motivations of the authors in producing such a publication. The guide outlines a five step plan for involving the public when communicating research findings. These five points are categorised in the guide as: scoping; involving people; planning; user-testing; and dissemination. In themselves we felt the tips and methods suggested were useful however the group felt that these categories and the content included within them did not constitute true public engagement. Instead, it was judged that the guide provided a summary of means and ways of disseminating research to different audiences, rather than facilitating meaningful engagement.

This led us to consider who the guide might be useful for and to debate the applicability of using the five steps outlined in the guide across different disciplines and pubic engagement initiatives. We wondered if researchers themselves may view the guide differently, since our objectivity as public engagement professionals reviewing this resource is somewhat biased.

We did find the substantial further contacts list and the bullet pointed list of who to consider contacting, useful features of the resource. We also felt that the guide’s reminders to carefully examine the language and tone used for disseminating research findings to an audience outside of academia was an especially helpful point.

Following this, we went on to discuss what we felt was missing from the guide, listing valuable additions and questions that could have been included: how did the money flow in the project; who was paid and who volunteered their time; what challenges did the project face;  and did all partners feel the project existed on an equal basis. It was felt that the guide would have been of greater practical use, had answers to some of these questions been addressed.

Practicality of creating a public engagement guide

This critical reflection of the guide led us to discuss if we would disseminate the resource broadly within our respective institutions, and as to whether similar documents already existed in our institutions. In particular, we wondered whether or not the guide could serve a purpose for researchers across different disciplines – it is quite obviously geared towards the sciences.

This led us to address the potential benefits and limitations of producing ‘guides’ to conducting public engagement in general. We discussed if a toolkit, or a series of case studies, could instead provide more practical tips for a broader range of researchers undertaking public engagement activities.

Conclusions

The group felt that the guide had a slightly misleading title as ‘Public Engagement: a practical guide’  acting more as a case study than a general best practice guide for conducting public engagement activities and certainly did not take into account the full breadth of engagement practice. The suggestion to rename it to ‘A guide to involving the public in communicating your research’ seemed to us to solve this problem!

Similarly, we decided that creating generalised guides for conducting public engagement activities are not particularly useful, there is such a range of activities and types of engagements one definitive guide to public engagement would be a massive undertaking for anyone. Instead, case studies were viewed as a better means for detailing methods and ideas for conducting best practice public engagement, which this guide actually did quite well

The meeting also saw several new members join the PEN and it was great to have so many new voices join the discussion for our first meeting of 2018. The next reading group will take place on Wednesday 28th March and will focus on theoretical conceptions of public engagement – watch this space!

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