Wellcome's approach to engaging the public is going to change

Wellcome has a new public engagement strategy. Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement, explains why we think it's necessary and what it means for the way we will work

Imran Khan, Wellcome's Head of Public Engagement
Imran Khan: "This new strategy should create the space for us to be more flexible and radical."

Since I joined Wellcome’s Public Engagement team in late 2016, we’ve been busy. We launched a new funding scheme, supported countless projects, appointed new Fellows and worked with amazing new partners. But the biggest thing we’ve been doing is developing a new public engagement strategy.

Wellcome’s mission is to improve life for everyone by helping great ideas thrive. As an institution we’re being increasingly proactive in how we achieve that – for example by setting priority areas such as drug-resistant infections and vaccines – and by becoming more globally oriented. At the same time, it feels like the world is changing ever more rapidly – and this includes changes in how people relate to health and research.

Wellcome has long been a pioneer and leader in public engagement, and we wanted to live up to this by becoming even more ambitious in pushing the boundaries of how we involve people in our work.

Over the past year we’ve been testing new ways of funding and partnerships, supporting more innovative projects, and taking on board lots of support, opinions and challenge from existing partners as well as from some critical friends who we haven’t worked with.

We’re now almost ready to start putting this new strategy into practice, which will substantially change the way we operate in the coming years. To enable this, we've restructured the Public Engagement team and started to develop new working practices.

The biggest shift is that we want to be much more focused on outcomes. It’s not enough for us to know that public engagement is happening and reaching lots of people – we need to know how it’s contributing to Wellcome’s mission, and how to improve it.

We’ve decided that in future there will be three broad types of outcomes we’ll be looking for.

  • First, we want people to be empowered, so that more people can access, use, respond to and create health research and innovation.
  • Second, we want to see more people-centred health research, which means better understanding people’s experiences of science and health so that Wellcome and our partners can make better decisions
  • Third, we want society to value Wellcome’s work, so we need to ensure the research and innovation we fund is trustworthy and valued by people, whether or not we work with them.

What our new approach means for how we work

This new outcomes-led approach means that we need to change how we operate.

We’ll continue to use grants to fund important work in public engagement, including engagement that’s led by researchers.

The sectors we’ve worked with closely for years will continue to be important to us, but we’ll be focusing on outcomes, and working harder to learn from best practice in other grant-giving sectors. This means we need to improve our ability, and that of our grantees, to use and to create the evidence that underpins our work.

And we want to be in a better position to proactively make targeted investments and create diverse partnerships with people who might never think of working in science or health, or with Wellcome. This will complement our existing approach of responding to the best ideas wherever they come from, and the work of our colleagues in Wellcome Collection.

Redefining what public engagement means in practice

Put simply, we still believe public engagement’s core purpose is to get better at involving more people with Wellcome’s work and mission, and we think that the potential of this new strategy is exciting.

It should create the space for us to be more flexible and radical in how we approach our work, redefining what public engagement means in practice not just for Wellcome but also for the sectors in which we operate throughout the world.

We’ve begun the shift to this new way of working and are advertising some new roles to help us implement it. But please be assured that we’re maintaining the projects and funding commitments we’ve already made. 

In the coming months, we’ll continue to share updates on how these changes are progressing, including details on how you can get involved.

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