Planning your public engagement
Sharing your ideas with the public and getting new perspectives can enhance your research. Our planning guide includes advice, ideas and common pitfalls to avoid.
First things first
There's one important question to ask yourself before you begin: 'Why do I want to engage the public?' Thinking about your answer will make your public engagement easier and more successful.
There are many ways to engage the public, but not all of them will be suitable for what you're hoping to achieve. You might want to:
- inform people and make your research more accessible
- consult people and explore the ethical and social implications of your research
- collaborate with people and share expertise.
Knowing what your aims are helps you to know who you need to speak to. Asking yourself who you want to reach makes it much easier to decide how to engage them.
For example, running a stand at a local festival might be a better way to engage families than using social media. Or if you want to inspire the next generation of researchers, you might work with schools.
We don't expect you to be an expert at putting on events, and you don't have to run your activities alone. In fact, working with people who already know a community or audience will help you meet their needs.
It's a good idea to think about evaluation as you plan your activities. Evaluation can take place before, during and after a project.
- Our step-by-step guide to planning public engagement activities [PDF 40KB].
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's information on planning, managing and evaluating public engagement activities.
Your public engagement aims can change during your research project. Public engagement isn't only about sharing your results – it can be valuable at all the stages of your research.
Early public engagement can help you decide your research question and develop your ideas. It lets you get a clear idea of the issues that might affect your research, including:
- personal, cultural and social issues
- the public, patient or community's views.
Public engagement at this stage can tell you whether your research proposal is realistic. It also introduces people in the community to you and your work, so it's easier to do more engagement later on.
Stakeholders might help you write materials for them (eg patient information leaflets or questionnaires). They might also work with you to collect data.
The public might be interested in your initial results. Talking to them now also lets you discuss emerging ethical or social issues as early as possible.
With successful public engagement, your final results should reflect your stakeholders' needs and opinions. When you share the results, engaging with the community will let more people hear about them.
The aim of most post-project engagement is to tell people about your findings. It can also be an opportunity to start developing future research and engagement activities.
Evaluation is an important tool that will help you develop your public engagement. Ongoing testing and audience feedback can improve your activity, as well as telling you if you're achieving your aims.
Think back to your initial aims to help you identify what success will look like.
Think creatively about the methods you might use for evaluation and how they will work as part of your engagement activities. Could the evaluation become part of the activities themselves?
Consider your audience and surroundings. For example, quick interviews could work well for families at a festival, but a written survey might be better after a theatre performance.
Your project won't just have an impact on your audiences. Think about the influence it might have on your collaborators, your research team and yourself.
Don't wait until your project's finished to evaluate it. Evaluation is useful throughout a project and can help you develop and improve your activities.
There are many ways to conduct evaluations. Traditional methods like feedback forms might not be the best fit for your audiences.
Evaluation doesn't have to be complicated to be useful. Simple methods – like asking people to write feedback on Post-It notes – can often tell you what you need to know.
Who do you want to reach?
Working with schools connects teachers and young people with contemporary research. It can help to inspire the next generation of researchers.
You might want to work with a school if you:
- research an area that’s relevant to young people’s lives
- want honest feedback about what you do
- would like to help teachers with their continuing professional development
- have equipment or facilities that schoolchildren could use
- produce a resource that could support learning (like the Wellcome Trust’s Big Picture).
If you have a child, you might like to contact their school. This is the first step for many researchers.
Your organisation might have a programme to connect researchers with schools and young people. Contact the outreach or widening participation team.
If you’re in the UK, you could become a STEM ambassador and do activities with local schools. STEMNET runs the ambassador scheme to encourage young people to enjoy STEM subjects.
- Research Council UK's Engaging Young People with Cutting Edge Research: a guide for researchers and teachers
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to working with schools
You have to work with patient groups to recruit people. This should be part of your research method.
Working with patient groups can connect you to people with valuable perspectives on your work. You might want to engage more with patient groups if you:
- want to make sure your research is relevant to the communities it affects
- know your research could have a personal or emotional impact.
Contacting patient groups
Making strong, long-term links with community groups can support the development of your research. You might want to work with a local youth group, cultural or religious group, sports team, charity or support group.
You might want to engage with one of these groups if you:
- work with vulnerable or excluded groups
- want a long-lasting relationship with a group
- want to reach people who might not usually engage with science.
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to working with local communities
How do you want to reach people?
Artists include visual, performance and musical artists. Many of them find science inspiring and are keen to work with researchers.
You might want to work with an artist if you want to:
- challenge people's perceptions and create a personal connection with your research
- find new perspectives on your work
- reach people who might not usually engage with science.
Discuss your ideas and aims with an artist before you decide to collaborate with them. If you agree on common goals early on, the process will be much easier.
Arts projects can go through more changes than scientific ones. They might take more time than you think.
Don’t forget intellectual property: whose art will it be once it's made?
Several universities and university departments focus on science–art projects. Their tutors might be able to point you in the right direction or suggest a collaboration. For example:
- Arts and Sciences programme at UCL
- LifeSpace at the University of Dundee
- Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design.
Some arts organisations specialise in art–science collaborations and might be able to help. In the UK, for example, you might get in touch with:
- Arts Catalyst
- ASCUS Art & Science and the ASCUS Lab
- Fuel Theatre
- Invisible Dust, which focuses on the environment and climate change
- Live Art.
For the most up-to-date opportunities, check ArtsHub. People post about competitions, festivals, exhibitions, volunteering and residencies.
Broadcast (including TV and radio), games and films can reach a diverse audience. Your research could help make their outputs more compelling.
You might want to work with a broadcast professional or develop a broadcast project if:
- you can give advice and suggestions for programmes
- you want to reach mass audiences, including people who don't usually engage with science.
Don't expect to be on screen: most researchers get involved behind the scenes. You're more likely to feed into the content for programmes, films or games than appear in them. Even behind the scenes, your involvement might be smaller than you first thought.
It's common for pieces to go through a lot of development work but not get produced.
The producers' and broadcasters' priorities might not be the same as yours. People in the industry will have interests, messages and angles they want to pursue. You need to think about where your priorities can align with theirs.
Start by networking: head to festivals and screenings. Try to meet people working in the industry and researchers with previous experience. Ask their advice on how to get involved.
Think about your online presence, and make sure it represents you and your work. If someone needs an expert in your field, having a clear and approachable website will encourage them to contact you. You might even consider uploading clips of talks or other engagement activities to YouTube.
If you have an idea for a project, you'll need to approach a production company or broadcaster. Look at the end credits of projects you like to see which companies you might want to work with. Look at channels' commissioning sites (eg the BBC's) to understand their priorities.
There are many training courses for people who want to get involved in broadcast, games and film. Creative SkillSet has a useful directory.
Museums, libraries and other venues often work with researchers to develop exhibitions and workshops. People at festivals and events often have time to stop and talk, so they can be great participants for your activities.
You might want to go to a festival or public event if:
- you want to discuss your research in an informal public setting
- you’ve planned an appropriate activity (eg science busking or a guided workshop)
- you want to engage several audiences at once, including people who might not usually engage with science.
At festivals, it's a good idea to work with the organiser to make sure you're in the right area. Science busking works well next to a long queue, but in-depth activities need to be somewhere less distracting.
Don't forget sound and logistics. Would your activity still work near a loud main stage? Do you need a power supply or any facilities?
Make sure your activities are on the right scale: festivals can vary greatly in terms of numbers of people. The organisers can give an idea about how many people you might expect to engage with.
To start, look at what's happening near you. As well as traditional festivals and events, you might want to consider events like:
- agricultural shows
- food festivals
- literary festivals.
British Science Week is an annual programme of thousands of public engagement events. Registering your event can help you get publicity across Britain.
Bright Club runs variety nights for people who wouldn't usually go to science events. The evenings bring together comedians and researchers to tell stories about what they do.
Cafés Scientifique are informal forums for debating scientific issues. They take place in small venues like cafés and bars across the world.
FameLab challenges contestants to explain a scientific concept in three minutes. In 2016 FameLabs will take place in several countries across the world.
Science Live connects event organisers with researchers and volunteers to put on live science events. You can register online to get involved.
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to making the most of festivals
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to working with museums and libraries
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to working with science and discovery centres.
Through the internet you can connect to people across the world to talk about your research. Popular platforms include blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and social networks like Twitter and Snapchat.
You might want to use the internet for public engagement if you:
- want people to engage with the scientific process, not just your results
- can commit time to building up an audience
- are comfortable being yourself and showing your personality.
Setting up a blog or social media account is easy, but being successful takes a big commitment. You need to have the time to post regularly and respond to the comments you get.
Be cautious. You can delete your posts, but someone else might have saved your content before you remove it. Nothing on the internet really goes away, so 'if in doubt, leave it out'.
There are plenty of ways to try out social media.
You can start an account (eg a Twitter account) and use it to follow interesting people. You don’t have to post yourself until you're more familiar with the community.
There are thousands of blogs out there, so you can probably find one or two that would publish a guest post.
If you prefer talking to writing, you might like to get involved with an internet radio show or podcast. For example, the Naked Scientists welcome help with their podcasts.
Online science communities can be friendly and helpful. They sometimes have regular meetings that you can attend, like SpotOn in London and New York.
- The Australian Science Media Centre's tips for scientists using social media
- Neuroskeptic's How to Science Blog
- The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement's guide to working with digital media.