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Whether telling people about the results of your research or involving others in doing research, public engagement can mean a lot of different things. So let's take a closer look.

Public engagement

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) defines public engagement as:

"Public engagement describes the myriad ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."

This definition highlights many important features, but you may also notice that it suggests that there are lots of different ways you can do public engagement

Different forms of engagement achieve different things, and will be appropriate for different audiences, so the first key step to deciding what to do is figuring out what your purpose and who the key audience(s) are. Purposes of engagement can be broken down into three main categories:

Informing: Informing and inspiring young people, adults and family audiences about your research, and to increase its accessibility. E.g. Podcasting; engaging presentations and writing for non-specialist audiences. 

Consulting: To better inform you on the public’s views and concerns about your research, and also an opportunity to hear fresh perspectives and insights. Possible techniques include: online consultations; panels and user-groups.

Collaborating: To encourage public participation in your research by involving people as researchers for your project or to develop collaborative research projects or helps define future research direction, policy or implementation or application of research outcomes.

There is no hierarchy on engagement strategies; all are useful and valid in their own way and very often an activity will contain a blend of these techniques and purposes. 

Public Engagement with Research (PER): interactions and relationships with other activities

You’ve possibly also come across lots of other terms and activities that sound a bit like they’re public engagement, but have a different name. The purpose and audiences behind these different activities is what really separates them out – though not completely. Public engagement, being a broad definition, means that there can be a lot of overlap and different funders and institutions may well have their own particular definition. 

 Public Engagement Daisy

The PER daisy - developed by The University of Oxford

At the University of Oxford we talk about Public Engagement with Research - acknowledging the 'research' part of this can help clarify what you're doing. The University has a rich tradition associated with Outreach. However, an activity with the sole purpose related to recruitment or admissions may not be public engagement with research - however, perhaps researchers are using their research to inspire young people about a subject and can make use of outreach mechanisms to achieve this.

Knowledge Exchange may be sharing information with specialists in another field, or vice versa, whilst public engagement would be sharing information with non-specialists. 

Impact is of course the changes that take place as a result of research activity and outputs - public engagement is a valid route to impact.

The University of Oxford, in it's Strategic Plan for Public Engagement with Research states:

  • Public Engagement with Research refers to a wide range of ways of engaging members of the public with the design, conduct and dissemination of research.
  • In this context, the "public includes individuals, groups, young people and their families who do not currently have a formal relationship with a HEI through teaching, research or knowledge transfer, but who may have an interest in these activities or upon whom the research or its application could impact." Research Councils UK
  • Effective public engagement can enhance research and scholarship by broadening, exchanging, and testing knowledge and expertise. It can also enhance the quality and impact of research, acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between the public funding of research and scholarship and the societal benefits arising from it in terms of public culture, democratic citizenship and economic prosperity.

Benefits for researchers of doing PER


Benefits of PER for researchers - University of Oxford Strategic Plan for Public Engagement with Research

The Public Engagement ‘Onion’

engagement onion
The public engagement onion - developed by the Wellcome Trust

This model shows more detail on different activities you could do as public engagement. It also represents which activities lend themselves to ‘deeper’ levels of engagement, i.e., where a more rich, two-way interaction can take place; shared decision making at one end and broadcast activities at the other.

The University of Oxford is a signatory of the Manifesto for Public Engagement:

The manifesto is a commitment to the following statements:

  • We believe that universities and research institutes have a major responsibility to contribute to society through their public engagement, and that they have much to gain in return.
  • We are committed to sharing our knowledge, resources and skills with the public, and to listening to and learning from the expertise and insight of the different communities with which we engage.
  • We are committed to developing our approach to managing, supporting and delivering public engagement for the benefit of staff, students and the public, and to sharing what we learn about effective practice.

You can read the full manifesto for more detailed information.

"Signing the Manifesto provides a good opportunity to re-affirm Oxford’s centuries-old commitment to engaging with the public on issues of religion, politics, the arts, society, science and more.

“Oxford’s academics, researchers and students love to connect and share their work with the public; involve the community in their activities; stimulate and take part in debates; get involved in festivals of culture and science; and apply their expertise to societal and economic challenges. Our engagement with the public is enhanced by our museums, the Botanical Garden, Wytham Woods and the Harcourt Arboretum, the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University Press, the Oxford Colleges, Oxford on line (incl. Oxford  iTunes, Oxford Sparks and social media) and our activities overseas."

Professor Ian Walmsley, FRS, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research, Academic Services and University Collections).

Public engagement is also a commitment within the University’s Strategic Plan 2013-18:

“The public will be involved in the University’s research activities through workshops and presentations on key issues in society and as co-researchers and contributors to research projects.”

For an overview plus a discussion on developing impactful research through doing public engagement, with a specific view on career success for researchers take a look at the video hangout as part of the #jobsQ series.