How we’re using research and evidence to make sure public engagement has a big impact

Carla Ross leads the new Public Engagement Research and Evidence team. Here she explains what the team will be looking at over the next year.

Man speaking
Credit: Michael Bowles / Wellcome
A photograph of the author, Carla Ross.

Carla Ross

A photograph of the author, Carla Ross.

Carla Ross

Under our new strategy, we value public engagement as a means to achieving important outcomes for society – and for the health research ecosystems that serve it.

This means we need to know where to focus our attention, the best methods to use, and how to measure the progress we’re making. And this knowledge should benefit not just Wellcome but everyone with an interest in the role the public can play in science research and subsequent improvement in health.

Building up this knowledge is the purpose of our new Research and Evidence team – and if you have ideas to contribute, we’d be glad to talk. Over the coming year we will focus on five areas.

1. ​Investigating how best to empower the public to influence and co-produce research

Science impacts upon every corner of society, and so ought to meaningfully consult and be co-produced by society. But we don’t think that nearly enough of this work is being done at the moment. We want to test a range of models to understand how a diverse public can engage with and bring their experience to research. This could include contributing towards ethics and decision making, or exploring which fields and stages of research lend themselves to participatory approaches.

We’ll be testing ideas that help us to unpick how we hold meaningful and mutually beneficial public conversations. We want to identify ways to shape science research and public engagement agendas based on the needs of the public – and that means the whole of the public, not just those who are already well-represented in such conversations.

An important area to explore is the role of technology and participation. How do we use social-listening technologies, digital platforms, data and AI to listen and respond in ways that support people, communities, relationships and trust, and build agency? In my experience these ingredients are always essential for good outcomes in complex areas such as wellbeing, and without them our technological advances risk backfiring.

2. Finding ways to support the people who enable public engagement

Youth workers, communities, film producers, public engagement professionals, researchers, policy makers and creatives are often at the coalface of engagement. As change agents, they play a hugely important role in enabling public participation in research by acting as inspirers, convenors, translators and co-creators.

The Public Engagement Fund is an important route for us to support these change agents to test and spread effective participatory approaches. We’ll be using the insights generated from these projects to share and bolster ideas, and to fine-tune the support we offer.

We’ll also be commissioning research to discover where there might be most potential for impact through agents of change. For example, we’re currently looking at:

  • the role that leisure centres could play in connecting communities with research and researchers with communities
  • how youth workers can use their relationships to connect young people to science research
  • how we build a framework to show the social impact that films and documentaries about health issues have on the public

3. ​​Exploring what encourages and deters researchers who want to do public engagement

The practice of public engagement has come a long way, and we can see hotspots of great practice in our institutions. But overall it doesn’t feel like the culture, structures and incentives are sufficiently aligned to enable researchers to practise public engagement regularly. Addressing this is imperative if we want to see public engagement done sustainably, at scale and with substantial benefit to society.

We’ll continue to build on previous research to explore the underlying barriers and enablers, and in response we’ll build tools, programmes and resources that aim to create a step change in culture, policy and practice.

We’ll also be looking at the support we offer. Take-up of some of our existing support mechanisms for Wellcome-funded researchers has been low, so to begin with we’ll ask researchers (and public engagement teams) for feedback on how effective these mechanisms are, and how we can improve them.

4. Building evidence to show that public engagement is good for science and good for society

Our instinct is that public engagement improves science – helping it to have greater impact. But the evidence is patchy. It just doesn’t seem to have been methodically measured and collected, with important questions outstanding – for example, what works across different fields of research, different subjects, stages and goals, with different publics, cultures and geographies.

Evidence of what public engagement can do for the public is sparser still. Perhaps it’s because public engagement is often seen as the icing on the cake rather than the jam in the middle – nice to have, but peripheral.

We’ll be using our funded work and partnerships with others to ensure we address these gaps in the evidence, and to start to systematically collect and share the evidence on outcomes. This will mean that we can build a case for public engagement, as well as better understand what public engagement can (and can’t) achieve in science and society.

5. Strengthening the field of public engagement by taking a ‘what works’ approach

When it comes to engagement practice, more nuanced and practical evidence is needed. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to public engagement, as Jim Lavery describes well in a recent article. At the moment it feels like evidence and reflective practice get trapped in grants databases and hard-to-interrogate reports. It’s difficult to analyse and share. We’d like to change that.

We want to build a highly usable bank of evidence and experience that aims to inform and strengthen practice by describing what works, for whom, when and in which contexts.

For example, approaches that enable teens in Peckham to co-produce mental health research won’t necessarily be the same as those that support people with cystic fibrosis to agree basic research priorities with research scientists.

We want to hear what you think

We’re building our team to bring in the skills we’ll need, but a strategy that seeks to transform the field is not something we can achieve alone. We want to build relationships with other organisations, and we want to learn from everyone involved in public engagement.

The people we support through our Public Engagement Fund will be an invaluable source of ideas and experience. And so will public engagement teams in universities and practitioners in other fields, where public participation goes under many different names and guises.

If you have insights or reflections to share, do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me on c.ross@wellcome.org.

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