by Marina Joubert & Lars Guenther
There is a growing demand for public engagement with science. However, many scientists lack training and experience in this form of science communication. Find out more about how and why public engagement may benefit you and your research.
In his book ‘The Engaged Scholar – Expanding the Impact of Academic Research in Today’s World’ (2021, Stanford University Press), Andrew J. Hoffman, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, challenges academics to answer this question: Why did you choose to become a researcher?
Hoffman believes that most researchers want to make a positive difference in the world. This is only possible, he contends, when they value public engagement with science and actively take part in engagement activities. He writes: “now more than ever we need engaged scholars who can bring their expertise to the world, informing public and political discourse on the great challenges of our day”. He urges researchers to engage with citizens, policymakers, and other stakeholders; otherwise less accurate voices and “pseudo-experts” will prevail.
Science is no longer a closed system
Public engagement with science is about creating connections, conversations, and exchanges between researchers and people affected by (or interested in) that research. Done well, it gives a voice to public groups and allows them to co-create knowledge, while their input enriches and revitalises research with new perspectives.
However, for most scientists, the practice of public science engagement falls outside their training and experience. Engagement objectives such as constructive dialogue that generates public input into research and co-creating knowledge with public groups may seem like formidable challenges.
Historically, science operated as a closed system and afforded scientists a special kind of authority and autonomy. Consequently, scientists functioned separately from society, mostly hidden away in the proverbial “ivory tower”. However, as new advances in science presented us with ethical challenges and societal implications, science became increasingly intertwined with politics and public debate. These days, in an open system, sustained communication and societal dialogues are required for science to flourish.
The pressures on scientists to become more visible and make their work more accessible come from many angles. Research funders want to show that their funding is making a difference in society. Research organisations want to build their profiles and compete for attention, funding, and partners. These institutional science communication goals are achieved by profiling and promoting researchers and their achievements.
But there is also pressure from society itself. Given the momentous challenges we face in terms of climate change, environment, food security, and health, people are looking to science for answers and hope. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen how mis- and disinformation can harm public trust in science, and that is another reason why scientists probably can no longer afford to be absent from public debate.
Scientists themselves mostly agree that they share a moral duty to engage with society in order to enhance informed debate and help people make better, evidence-based decisions. Some feel strongly about being visible role models that can inspire the next generation of scientists.
From a focus on scientific facts only towards respectful dialogue
For many years, the scientific community has focused on providing people with more information (or ‘facts’) about science and new advances in research as a way of keeping the public informed and nurturing public support for science. In many cases and for many people, this approach does not work. We know now that it is not only about information and awareness, but also about how people respond to that information to form their own views. Simply put, telling people more about a specific topic does not mean that they will like it or support it. This has given us a new appreciation of the value of public dialogue about science. Consequently, the concept of ‘community and public engagement with research’ has gained traction as a more effective way of involving public audiences in research.
Therefore, public engagement with science is about much more than disseminating results at the end of a research project. Rather, it is about listening to public views and concerns and designing intentional activities that facilitate meaningful dialogue and ensures public input throughout the research cycle. It focuses on conversations about the process and societal impacts of science, rather than explanations of science.
In terms of the style of conversation, public engagement moves away from a focus on scientific facts only towards respectful dialogue that values different knowledge systems and world views. Instead of an academic style used in peer-to-peer communication, public engagement values warmth and personal stories that humanises the sciences and connects with people on an emotional level.
Successful public engagement may deliver several tangible and intangible benefits to researchers. Putting your research in a broader context encourages reflection and helps to anticipate public concerns. Public input often provides new perspectives on research and may even open up new research questions. Many researchers find it rewarding and enjoyable to engage with communities that are interested in or affected by their work. In the long run, effective public engagement demonstrates that research responds to societal needs and nurtures relationships and trust between scientists and communities. Public engagement may also present some risks and result in unintended consequences, but these can be anticipated and contained by effective preparation and planning.
Getting help (and possibly training) from communication and engagement experts can make a vital difference and will help scientists to evaluate their engagement activities in order to improve and sustain in a meaningful and sustainable way. Importantly, a supportive institutional environment and a clear policy about public engagement help to embed and reward public engagement as an integral part of research. When public engagement is included in research funding calls, scientists are further incentivised to invest in these activities.
How to develop an engagement plan
Creating a simple engagement plan (or strategy) can help you to avoid some pitfalls. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all engagement plan. Each engagement plan must be tailor-made to fit a specific research project. It requires careful reflection and thoughtful planning. Researchers have to be very clear about the purpose and objectives (what they hope to achieve) and think carefully about the individuals and groups they want to engage with. It takes time and expertise to identify and select the most appropriate and feasible engagement tactics, and it certainly requires budget, skills, resources, and time to implement it. If possible, create this plan with your collaborators. It is an excellent opportunity to benefit from their ideas and get everyone on the same page. Also, revisit the plan regularly! You will find that the plan will evolve as you make progress with the project.
Answering the questions (below) in the context of a specific research project will deliver a basic public engagement plan:
- Objectives: What is the purpose of your activity? Why do you want to engage?
- Role players: Who are the core members of the team dedicated to this engagement plan? Who else can (or should) you invite to join the team?
- Participants: Who do you want to engage with? Why?
- Content: What topics and issues will your engagement activity be about?
- Modes: What type or types of public engagement activity will you offer?
- Resources: What resources will be needed? What is available, what needs to be sourced? Do you need to arrange training for team members?
- Ethics: What ethical considerations do you need to keep in mind and plan for?
- Implementation: What actions and roles are needed to put this plan into action?
- Challenges: What challenges or barriers may become obstacles to this activity?
- Evaluation: How will you know whether this activity was a success?
Find more advice about writing an engagement plan or strategy at:
Marina Joubert is a senior researcher in the field of public science communication and engagement at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She is interested in how researchers across fields and career stages respond to public engagement, and how they can be supported to engage more effectively with diverse public groups.
Lars Guenther is senior research associate at University of Hamburg, and extraordinary associate professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is interested into public perceptions of (controversial) science, science and health journalism, trust in science, as well as the public communication about risks and scientific (un)certainty.