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Public engagement for busy researchers

public engagement for busy researchers

Caroline Wood, PhD student at the University of Sheffield, draws on her personal experiences of public engagement to describe the key benefits and different approaches to make it less burdensome for researchers. 

Most scientists feel compelled to engage with the public, either to oblige their department or because they find it intrinsically rewarding. But on top of coordinating research, applying for grants, managing students, writing papers and possibly teaching as well, trying to develop engaging public activities can become another source of pressure. This is a shame because if public engagement is reduced to a ‘chore’ or a ‘box-ticking’ exercise it becomes much harder to do it well. Ideally researchers should be motivated to take part in outreach activities for its own merits. At its best public engagement can re-enthuse you about your work, help you to appreciate different perspectives and possibly discover new lines of enquiry. This article draws on my personal experiences of public engagement to describe the key benefits and different approaches to make it less burdensome.

  1. Why do public engagement?
  2. How to do public engagement
  3. Making your approach effective
  4. Capturing your impact
  5. Other tips for effective public engagement

Why do public engagement?

  • It’s your chance to bring your work out of the laboratory/industrial setting and have a real impact in society. Academic research is typically a slow, iterative process that works towards long-term goals whereas public engagement can have immediate effects. These can include encouraging behaviour change, raising awareness, influencing a debate or informing policy makers about scientific evidence.
  • The public have a stake in science and deserve to be involved. Although much research is funded by public money, the outputs are typically hidden from public sight behind the paywalls of academic journals. This can foster distrust and the feeling that scientists are working out of sight, with no one knowing what they are up to. Bringing scientists and the public together can increase confidence that researchers are using their resources and technology responsibly. In addition, it reassures policy makers who approve national budgets that funding research is a valuable investment for society.
  • Public opinion sets the legislative agenda, as policy makers focus on the issues their constituents are most concerned about. The current drive to reduce disposable plastics, for instance, was fuelled in part by public outcry following the disturbing scenes in The Blue Planet Two showing the devastating environmental effects. We must also be aware that scientific evidence is only one part of policy debates: public acceptability is just as important, if not more. Consequently, if our work is to result in real change, it must be understood and accepted by the public. As an example, the approval of mitochondrial donation by I.V.F. (a.k.a. ‘three-parent embryos’) in the UK in February 2015 is a clear success story of complex scientific issues being communicated clearly to the wider public.
  • It is a brilliant way to build your skills in science communication. Within research communities, one tends to use the default mode of academic jargon but engaging with people who may not have studied science since school forces you to distil your message down to the most basic concepts. This helps you pick out the key messages needed to craft a compelling story – an invaluable skill for writing grant proposals and abstracts.
  • It can be extremely rewarding particularly if you present your research in a novel or unusual way, for instance partnering with community organisations, local events or even artists and animators. The possibilities are endless!
  • Simple is often best - even putting on a lab coat and looking through a microscope can delight children! Photograph by Ellen Bradley

    How to do public engagement?

When designing activities for public engagement, it is easy to fall into the ‘science demonstration’ format, where we take the role of the teacher at school performing a science trick to a watching audience. But this reinforces the cultural gulf between scientists and the general public and the perception that scientists, by virtue of their special skills and knowledge, can do things that others can’t. Such activities might be more straightforward to organise, but they also tend to be forgotten more quickly, as there is little active engagement for the participant. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE)[1], real public engagement is “a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."

With this in mind, truly engaging activities should promote the view that the scientific method – i.e. answering our curiosity through hypothesis-driven experiments – can be done by anyone. Instead of trying to force people to pay attention, tap into the natural curiosity that we all share as human beings, especially young children! Our audience should feel empowered and interested enough to find out more, whether through online research, books, podcasts, citizen science projects or even conducting their own experiments. 


Passive activity

Audience-engaged activity

Follow-on activity

Demonstrate how much the water footprint varies between different foods

Poster with statistics, facts and graphs

Matching activity: match the food product with the correct amount of water needed to produce it

Challenge participants to make lifestyle changes to reduce the water footprint of their diet

Demonstrate how important bees and other pollinators are to produce our food

Posters or static displays of food products requiring pollinators

Sorting activity: guess which products in a typical shopping basket require pollinators to produce or not

Give participants a packet of native wildflower seed to plant to encourage pollinators

Table 1: Examples of converting ‘passive’ public engagement activities into ‘actively-engaged’ activities:

Naturally, this typically requires more forethought and preparation. But it does not necessarily have to be a great deal more work for you, if you consider how to make your approach as effective as possible.

Making your approach effective

Join forces

Partner with others to effectively combine resources and volunteer manpower. As an example, you could collaborate with colleagues in your department/institute to hold a public open day or a panel discussion. Do include any early career researchers or PhD students under your

Active learning at the Food Festival - can you sort the identify which items in the shopping basket depend on bees to produce? Photograph by Ellen Bradley

supervision as they are often a rich source of ideas and enthusiasm. Local branches of learned societies can also be a means to connect with others and may even be a source of practical advice and funding.

Make your outreach activities part of established events

Using an established public stage means all the logistics are already taken care of (e.g. venue hire, ticketing, risk assessments, etc.), leaving you to focus on preparing your talk or activity. These may be regular events or annual festivals; hosted by your own institution or by a community venue; free admission or ticketed. If your region has an actual science festival, this would be the obvious choice. But thinking more broadly can allow you to reach an even wider cross-section of society, potentially beyond the already science-curious. As an example, the Sheffield Branch of the British Science Association[2], which I chaired until recently, has a strong partnership with the annual Sheffield Food Festival – all as a result of a speculative email to the festival organisers asking if they would be interested in having some science activities at the event. Our debut activity at the 2017 festival, ‘The Secret Life of Tomatoes’[3], explored the crucial role of plant pathologists in preventing crop diseases. This was so successful that we were invited back to the 2018 Festival as an official (and fully funded) part of the festival programme. Besides food festivals, you could also consider hosting an activity at a beer festival, music festival or local community festival.

Pint of Science[4]

An international three-day science festival that takes place across the world every May: this year over 270 cities across 21 different countries took part. The basic idea is that researchers present their work to the public in an accessible and comfortable venue – usually a pub. Events are divided into broad themes (e.g. medicine, technology, psychology) giving plenty of scope to include food science. The format is usually 2-3 talks separated by intervals during which the audience takes part in hands-on activities, giving them a chance to really get a taste of your research!

Appreciation days and weeks

Every foodstuff and cuisine seems to have a national or international appreciation day from UK Sausage Week[5] to World Vegetarian Day[6]. These can be excellent opportunities to showcase the science behind food production and the latest innovations. Local supermarkets or artisan producers may be willing to provide a venue for your activity as a way of promoting their products.

Museums and Libraries

These can provide characterful venues that receive a lot of footfall particularly during weekends and public holidays. Many also run programmes of events during school vacations and are always looking for new activities. You may be able to link your work to a museum’s exhibits, for instance artefacts relating to food preparation or historical science equipment.

Photograph exhibitions / artistic installations

If you prefer a more passive communication platform, perhaps you could put together an artistic installation or photography exhibition in a public space such as a town hall, art gallery or even a railway station. This could portray both the focus of your work and the culture of laboratory research.

Café Scientifique[7]

A worldwide movement where “for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology”. These informal events allow the science-curious to debate scientific issues in cafes, bars, restaurants and other non-academic settings. Local groups organise events and would probably be only too glad to host you as a speaker if you get in touch.

Table 2: Examples of established events

Raise your profile – let opportunities come to you

Investing some time in raising your profile can bring great rewards, especially if your work is related to a topical issue that people actively seek information on, such as obesity. Newspapers, radio shows and news programmes are always looking for expert opinions to include in their stories – but they can only ask you if they can find you. So, make sure your online institutional profile is up to date (including a recent photograph!) and has an accessibly summary of your recent work and achievements. It is even better if you have your very own website and/or blog to give the public a real insight into your working life. If you have spent years accumulating enough evidence for a scientific paper, it makes sense to spend just an hour or two longer crafting a succinct, accessible blog post so that anyone can learn about your findings –including educators and policy makers. You never know who will come across it: some of my blog posts[3] about crop science have been featured as part of biology textbooks and exam papers, and one even led to a radio interview. For really significant results, you should consider publishing an official press release; your institute may have a communications or personal relations department to assist you. Do also embrace social media if you haven’t already, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn. Some regions have online portals where you can offer your services as a speaker in your area of expertise (for instance Science Live[8] in the UK). 

Capturing your impact

There is a difference between collecting feedback from your participants and measuring the demonstrable impacts from your event. This should be considered right from the beginning of your preparations and not something hastily arranged on the day. Ask yourself how to make the data actually meaningful and easy to process. The typical approach is to give participants a survey (by email or a paper form) with tick-boxes, asking them to rate different components from ‘Poor’ to ‘Excellent’. But remember – even if 100% of your audience thought your event was ‘Excellent’ (usually people don’t want to seem rude!) this doesn’t tell you whether you left an impression on them.  The type of questions you ask them should be determined by your overall aim, for instance raising awareness or inspiring behaviour change:

Increased interest in the topic: One way to measure this is through web analytics tools, for instance increased traffic to your website/blog; a surge in Twitter followers or more downloads of your papers. If your work is linked to an online community or Facebook group, you could check to see if there has been a sudden increase in new members.

Pledge to change/ ‘What will you do differently?’: If your aim is to promote behavioural changes then a good way to measure your impact could be to ask your participants what changes they will make as a result of taking part in your activity. If they consent, you could even send them an email survey later to see if they actually did this. Alternatively, they could write their ‘pledge’ on a self-addressed postcard, which you post to them several months later as a reminder!  One activity I helped to organise, ‘Love your Eyes’, aimed to raise awareness of the eye disease Macular Degeneration. Participants were encouraged to write on large sheets of flipchart paper what they would do to better protect their eyes (e.g. wear sunglasses, eat more green leafy vegetables). An advantage of this approach is that the collection of pledges can be easily photographed and shared on social media.

Before/After or ‘What did you learn?’: To demonstrate increased learning about a topic, you could ask your audience what they know both before and after the event. This can be done as a list (e.g. ‘List as many foods high in potassium as you can’) or by Yes/No questions (e.g. ‘Do you know what foods are rich in potassium?’).

If possible, assign a specific volunteer to capture a record of the event through taking photographs and quotes from the participants (just remember to ask permission from parents before taking any photographs with children in). This leaves you free to get on with running the activities and should give you plenty of resources to use for crafting a summary blog post or to evidence the event to your funders.

Other tips for effective public engagement

  • Try to involve the public with your preparations so that you identify the real needs of your audience. As an example, an outreach project I coordinated with a mental health group called ‘The Science of Wellness’ aimed to present the science behind lifestyle interventions to improve wellbeing. We thought we had covered the main topics – mindfulness, exercise, nutrition, artistic activities – but when we held a focus group we found a huge interest in the therapeutic effects of spending time with nature and journaling life experiences.
  • Don’t feel you have to reinvent the wheel, especially when there is a wealth of freely available resources to help you plan an engaging event. There is no shame in using a tried-and-tested method that has already been thoroughly troubleshooted. Check out websites (see the resources list below), Youtube Channels (e.g. Sick Science[9] and HooplaKidzLab[10]) and online forums.
  • Keep it as simple as possible; the more complex the activity, the more likely your key message will be obscured. Even the most basic tasks such as looking through a microscope or handling a pipette often delight children. But do make sure you can scale up your explanations for informed adults who already have some understanding of the topic.
  • Make it easy for people to explore the topic further: have postcards or leaflets with suggestions of websites, blogs, podcasts and books or even QR codes that link to additional content/activities. If you are part of a wider network or local group, have information available about how people can get involved.
  • Quizzes, games and puzzles are extremely popular with children, especially if they can win a prize. Linking all your activities into a trail also encourages people to visit each one. At one event I was involved with, ‘Nature Detectives’, children received a ‘clue’ about a mystery animal after completing each activity. Once they could identify the animal they could claim a reward bag. Consider borrowing ideas from popular culture, for instance using Top Trumps cards to compare the nutritional profiles of traditional protein sources and more sustainable alternatives (such as insects). 
  • Spread the word: Use social media strategically to reach your target audience. Local parenting groups (e.g. netmums[11]) often share details about family-friendly events, especially if they are free. Eventbrite[12] is another popular online medium for advertising events and gives you the option of setting up a ticketing system so you know how many visitors to expect.
Pint of Science - Get outside the lab to help you reach new audiences - here I present my research on crop parasites in a pub. photo by Nat Phon-Or.

Additional Links

Science Bob: a repository of fun and easy science activities, particularly good for science festivals.  

The Crunch: a public engagement initiative by The Wellcome Trust to make people think about how food, health and the planet are interconnected. Although the project has finished, the website is a good source of ideas for activities related to food science.

The Nuffield Foundation: offers an extensive archive of practical science activities. Many of the biology projects have a food element, for instance working out the protein content of powdered milk.

The National STEM Learning Centre: provides a comprehensive resource directory for primary-secondary science educators. Many of the classroom activities can be adapted for public engagement.

Caroline Wood is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying parasitic weeds that infect food crops. Outside her lab work she enjoys taking part in public engagement initiatives, including through the Sheffield Branch of the British Science Association. She ultimately hopes to have a career in science policy and will be taking up a IFST-funded fellowship at the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology next year. You can learn more about her by following her on Twitter (@sciencedestiny) or by reading her blog.


  1. National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement
  2. Sheffield Branch of the British Science Association
  3. Science as a Destiny
  4. Pint of Science
  5. UK Sausage Week
  6. World Vegetarian Day
  7. Café Scientifique
  8. Science Live
  9. Sick Science
  10. HooplaKidzLab
  11. Netmums
  12. Eventbrite

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