Public Engagement

Reasons to engage

When researchers engage, it's usually with one or more of the below purposes in mind:

  1. To transmit knowledge to others - to inspire, inform, change, educate, build capacity and involvement or influence decisions of the public
  2. To receive knowledge from others - to use the views, skills, experiences, knowledge of the public to inspire, inform, change, educate or build capacity or decisions
  3. To collaborate with others - to consider, create or decide something together with the public 

Motivations for engagement will vary dependent on the research area; check out our engaged researcher case studies for examples of why researchers at the University have engaged.

If you're thinking for the first time about your reasons to engage, the below two models might prove useful. Click on the images to enlarge.

1) The Public Engagement Triangle

The Public Engagement Triangle

Broad but often overlapping purposes for public engagement can be located on a 2-dimensional triangle. More than one purpose might lie behind public engagement; a good starting point for researchers is to clarify which is predominant. This clarity helps to identify the type of engagement most suited to the purpose identified.

Public engagement practitioners may come from backgrounds that prioritise one or other of the purposes - those from an education or science communication background will be more 'transmit' experienced, consultation and market research practitioners more 'receive' experienced and mediators and partnership brokers more 'collaborate' experienced. All three purposes could be of benefit to research; as a researcher, you're likely to have your own preference.   

2) The Public Engagement Onion

The Public Engagement Onion

Devised by the Wellcome Trust, this model shows public engagement methods and activities as a series of layers, like an onion.

With each layer the focus moves from two-way dialogue and co-design to telling or information giving. Hence the impact on research or on influencing policy decreases as you move towards the outer layers of the onion.  

The outer layers of the onion tend towards activities that engage larger audiences - TV programmes, websites, articles and the like. Whilst the inner layers of the onion may reach smaller audiences, the significance of the impact on them may be greater than in the outer layers.

Depending on your discipline you'll see some activities may have a more natural or obvious fit with your research. For example:

  • STEM-based research has a history of inspiring future generations of scientists - the 'information' and 'stimulating thinking' layers
  • Social science has a tradition of investigating public attitudes and shaping public policy - the 'understanding thinking' and 'informing decision-making' layers
  • The grant peer review panels of UK research funders such as the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council include reviewers from outside the academic community to provide perspectives on the social, cultural or economic impact of proposals - the 'making decisions' layer 

As research becomes more collaborative and innovative, you're likely see a blurring of these divisions.

Once you've considered your reasons for engaging, the next stage to consider is who to engage.