Public Engagement – But Why?

Written by Dr Nigel Eady 

“So what is it you actually do?” It’s a question that many researchers get asked by friends and family, at parties, over a meal, or almost anywhere. How do you respond? Which version do you give them – the big picture, sounds interesting but is far from the day to day reality, or the fine detail, might send them to sleep version? Is this public engagement? Well, it certainly could be, but most people would define public engagement much more broadly.

I would describe it as ‘any process through which people interact with research’. Personally, I think, the more interesting types of public engagement involve as much ‘listening’ by researchers as they do ‘telling’. Giving people information is important, but having a dialogue, a two-way conversation, can be even more useful, for both parties. You might even think of engagement as being a broad spectrum of approaches.

In recent years, public engagement has moved from being under the radar, to being required explicitly by funders, see the 2010 Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research and RCUK webpages. Whilst some would definitely debate whether it is really a part of normal research practice, it is only going to become more important. The requirement for impact case studies as part of the Research Excellence Framework is another important factor.

One important reason to do public engagement is that much research is conducted with public money, and people therefore have a right to understand how that money is being spent and what it’s achieving. But if that’s not sufficient for you to consider engaging people, here are my 5 top reasons for engaging publics.

1. Enhance your communication skills

For five years I ran various projects to help researchers engage people. It showed me, time and again, that the discipline of having to explain your research to someone else is invaluable for teaching you to communicate more clearly, simply and engagingly.

2. Ask better research questions

As well as communicating better, it’s remarkable the number of times that the questions people ask about your research lead to fresh insights, even new avenues of research.

3. Attract funding

There are many small funding schemes for public engagement. In fact we have one ourselves! By successfully winning funding for activities, not only will you learn how to write a persuasive funding bid, you will also demonstrate to potential, future funders your commitment to your research.

4. Increase your enjoyment

Any form of engagement can be a welcome relief from the rigours of defending your research to your peers! It can also be a helpful reminder as to why you do what you do.

5 .Strengthen democracy

Engaging people with research has a key role to play in opening up decision-making. You can involve people who feel disconnected from society and build trust in public institutions. It’s also an easy way for universities to respond to social need, in particular, at the local level.

Don’t just take my word for it! There are many more reasons to do public engagement. Who knows, you might just feel a little bit more comfortable when you’re asked, “So what is it you do?”