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Whether telling people about the results of your research or involving others in doing research, public engagement with research can involve a wide array of activities. So let's take a closer look.

Sixth form students taking part in an activity

Public Engagement with Research is a range of ways of engaging members of the public with the design, conduct and dissemination of research - all with the goal of generating mutual benefit by enhancing the quality and socio-economic impact of research.

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 approaches; 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 shows a circle in the middle reading "PE". There are then a series of connected circles around the larger central circle, each reading a different term that is related to PE. These are responsible research and innovation, research comms, widening participation, outreach, community engagement, public and patient involvement, impact, knowledge exchange, business and policy engagement.

The PER daisy - developed by The University of Oxford. Public Engagement has many overlapping aspects: Responsible Research and Innovation; Research Comms; Widening Participation; Outreach; Community Engagement; Public Involvement; Impact; Knowledge Exchange; Business and Policy Engagement.

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 and whilst there is overlap, PER and outreach differ in purpose and sometimes content. Outreach aims to strategically widen access and participation through student recruitment, often using current research and impact stories to engage and interest target groups of the public, such as school students and their influencers. However, an activity that is generally about the broader discipline, doesn't feature current research, or talks about the process of admissions is not PER.  

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

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

The University of Oxford, in its 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.

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

Text box on Benefits of PER for researchers - text transcribed below

Transcript of image text: Benefits of PER for researchers. “Public Engagement can provide substantial benefits to the researchers involved in engaging the public, as well as providing a major contribution to society. Engaging the public can also improve the quality of research and its impact, by widening research horizons. We achieve this through involving, listening and interacting with the public”. Quote is from Research Council UK. Enhance research and its impact. Skills development. Raise research profile. Rewarding and motivating. New research perspectives. Gain access to funding. New collaborations and partnerships. Inspire future generations of researchers. 


The Public Engagement ‘Onion’, developed by the Wellcome Trust

The public engagement onion. Full text is linked below the image.

This model shows more detail on different activities you could do as public engagement with research. 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. Read a transcript of the image.

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

"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.”