‘Flawed’ attitude to public engagement ‘lingers on’

New journal sets out ideas on how to involve non-academics in research – but warns area is still a ‘work in progress’

February 15, 2017
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The idea that researchers can win the public around to their point of view simply by informing them of their findings “lingers on” in universities despite a change of attitudes over the past decade, according to one of the founders of a new journal on how to involve the wider population in academia.

Research for All has been set up to spread ideas about how best to involve the public, from consulting on the direction of research to discussing the results. The launch of the journal shows how the area has matured in recent years, but the first issue also finds that, in the UK at least, getting researchers engaged with the public remains a “work in progress”.

Sophie Duncan, deputy director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and an editor of the new journal, said that when her organisation was set up about eight years ago, “public engagement” generally focused on disseminating research findings. It used to be seen as “the kind of thing people did when they weren’t good at research”.

But now, she said, “people are being much more thoughtful, in part because of the pressure to have impact in our research”, a development that grew out of changes to how academics were assessed through the UK’s research excellence framework.

The new journal contains a number of ideas on how to reach out to the public. One scheme, which has run in Cardiff since 2010, centres around screening films that are more or less science related (examples include The Hunger Games, Inception and District 9). Afterwards, there are short talks about issues raised in the films that are led not only by physical science academics but also by historians, sociologists and philosophers, who then discuss the film with audience members.

This method “assumes that people are more likely to understand and engage with science if they are also involved in discussions about its use, value and social context rather than simply being handed top-down explications about ‘methods’, ‘facts’, ‘objectivity’ or ‘statistics’”, explains a paper in the journal on how the Cardiff sciSCREEN project works.

But another article in Research for All concludes that efforts to involve laypeople in academia are still a “work in progress”.

Drawing on previously published data, it finds that about seven in 10 researchers believe that they have a “moral duty to engage with the public about the social and ethical implications of their research”.

But one in three still thinks of public engagement as a “one-way dissemination” of information to the public, it finds.

This older idea of how to engage with the public “lingers on in pockets”, Ms Duncan said. “It’s a flawed model that [assumes] people are waiting to learn what you [the researcher] know.”

Another approach that had sometimes been used by academics was “consulting people when the decision has already been taken” about the direction of a piece of research, she added.

Not all public engagement has to be at the point of steering research, Ms Duncan noted.

Sandy Oliver, professor of public policy at University College London and another editor of Research for All, explained that engagement can instead be about involving the public in the collection of data – asking them how many ladybirds they come across, for example.

“People who do this are often very surprised at how much they get back from the public,” she said.


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