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Public engagement with science: making your research heard

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Published: 25 Aug 2021
By Lauren Kelly

Conducting scientific research gives scientists an invaluable set of skills, helping them to learn, analyse and interpret information. It provides the opportunity to do an in-depth study into a chosen topic of interest and solve a small piece of the scientific puzzle. Although this can be fun and exciting, it’s easy for researchers to withdraw into the well-recognised ‘ivory tower’, losing track of the big picture and why their research really matters. Maintaining the ability to communicate research to a wider audience is vital and achievable through public engagement.

What do I mean by public engagement?

Public engagement is how scientists involve public audiences in the ‘activity and benefits of higher education and research’, with the goal of ‘generating mutual benefit’ for scientists and the public.

Types of public engagement

A review conducted by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) revealed a wide range of ways to describe public engagement. The definition is dependent on who the audiences are. Public engagement can involve interacting with communities, organisations and even policymakers to improve their understanding of a particular important topic. This can range from going into primary schools to educate pupils about the science behind a project, to speaking to patients about the ongoing research into their disease.
 
Whatever the method of engagement, the NCCPE stress the importance of understanding why you are trying to engage your audience. To help with this, they use the ‘public engagement triangle’ (Figure 1). This triangle was created as part of a 2010 ‘Science for All’ programme and is used as a guide across many universities. It encompasses the three main purposes of public engagement:

  1. To inform and inspire change, educate the public and influence their decisions, for example through an exhibit at a science museum.

  2. To consult and listen to the public and use this to inspire change and influence future decisions, for example through questionnaires.

  3. To collaborate and create or decide something with the public, for example through patient panels.

Figure-1.jpg

Figure 1. The public engagement triangle
Figure showing the three key purposes of public engagement. Taken from the NCCPE website.

 

Why is public engagement with science so important?

Scientific research is an in-depth investigation into a particular area of interest and requires skill, time and patience. The data from scientific research allows us to improve our understanding of the world, providing information to support how society is governed. For example, data about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines informed decisions about vaccine roll-out globally. Therefore, scientific research impacts everyone. Communication of science is beneficial for both the researcher and the public. Engagement allows scientists to focus on the purpose and impact of their research, reminding them of why they are doing it. This can help inspire and motivate researchers, especially during times when the research is not flowing as smoothly as planned. The ability to communicate research in a clear and concise manner has economic benefits for the researcher too, as it is vital that scientists make a convincing argument for the importance of their research when applying for funding for future projects.
 
From a public perspective, engagement with science improves understanding of the research, the rationale behind it, and why it is important for society. Often, scientific evidence and public opinion do not agree. Lack of understanding and poor communication of research can lead to fear, misinformation and a lack of trust from the public. An example of this is COVID-19 and vaccine roll-out, which is discussed in more detail below. Public engagement provides the opportunity for scientists to communicate their research in a clear and creative manner, to build on public trust and appreciation.
 
Mental health is an area that has benefited from public engagement. Several charities such as the Samaritans have regular events to raise awareness of mental health issues. More recently, people in the public eye have openly spoken about their mental health issues to improve public awareness and help others going through similar struggles. A prime example is the American gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympics and openly attributing this to mental health struggles. Charites such as Mental health UK have also shown support of this. By using her platform to openly engage with others about such a critical issue, Simone has helped raise its public awareness.
 
Public engagement is also an important tool for tackling common taboo topics, particularly when the taboo arises from a lack of understanding. Taboos around menstruation are prime examples of this. Historically, people who menstruate have been seen as ‘unclean’ or ‘impure’, and this still exists in some cultures. This has resulted in a worldwide silence when it comes to talking about periods and the difficulties regarding them. Menstruating individuals can feel too embarrassed to speak out and ask for help, leading to problems with work, mental health and access to clean sanitary products. Different organisations have tried to deal with the stigma that surrounds periods by engaging the public with all things period. Resources about periods and period-related issues are widely available online, but public engagement and discussions about these problems play a key role. This is particularly true in Scotland, where engagement with policymakers about menstruation via the #FreePeriodScotland campaign led to a policy change by the Scottish government, which made all sanitary products free. This was a key moment for people who menstruate, and the hope is that Scotland will act as a catalyst for other countries introduce similar policies.

How has public engagement benefitted our society in the COVID-19 era?

In the pandemic world, communication of research is more vital than ever. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines within such a quick timeframe led to widespread public fear and doubts over vaccine safety. Immunologists and healthcare professionals worldwide took to the stage to try and engage the public with how vaccines work, the stages of vaccine development and reasons for why these vaccines could be created so quickly (which includes an abundance of funds and lots of information already available on mRNA vaccines). This engagement influenced the global uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines, positively helping society as a whole. More recently, the two developers of the AstraZeneca vaccine published a book which describes the whole process of vaccine development, including initial lab work. This is an excellent example of making science accessible to the public in an interesting, concise way. Engagement with policymakers was also key throughout the vaccine development process, as ultimately these were the people who could authorise vaccine rollout and needed to understand the scientific procedures. For example, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been responsible for providing prompt, accurate scientific evidence and advice on the pandemic to the UK government. This, in turn, has informed vital decisions on pandemic restrictions and mitigations.

How can I get involved?

Most universities have their own public engagement groups. Joining these groups will provide excellent opportunities to practise engagement skills and improve confidence when speaking to non-expert audiences. Many universities also take part in competitions such as FameLab and Three Minute Thesis (3MT) which challenge people to present science in a quick, clear and interesting way. Another way to get involved in public engagement is to become a STEM ambassador, which allows people to participate in several activities to support the learning of young people in STEM. Moreover, organisations such as the Royal Society of Biology have an ‘outreach and engagement working group’ that is open to new members. There are plenty of these groups out there and all you need to do is find the one that best suits you and your research. NCCPE have a fantastic resource on different types of engagement activities researchers can take part in.
 
Alternative ways to practice your public engagement skills include writing articles for science magazines (the Glasgow science and technology magazine theGIST is a great example of this) and volunteering to speak at science events for non-expert audiences. The Glasgow science festival is a prime example of the latter and it allows researchers to showcase their research to the public each year.
 
Whatever the path you have chosen to engage, simply talking to someone about your research to improve their understanding is impactful. Public engagement is the glue that sticks research and society together, helping to shape the world we live in for the better.

One way pharmacologists can get involved in public engagement is through the Society’s Ambassador Scheme. Our Ambassadors share their science, champion pharmacology, and represent the Society through a variety of activities of their choice. Visit our Ambassador webpages to learn more.

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Published: 25 Aug 2021
By Lauren Kelly

About the author

Lauren Kelly



Lauren is a third year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching the immune response in a form of skin and joint disease called psoriatic arthritis.

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