The Wellcome Trust hopes to spark a major improvement in the volume and quality of public engagement by allowing researchers to bid for dedicated funding while applying for mainstream scientific grants.
The trust already has a series of funding schemes for public engagement, but according to Clare Matterson, its director of medical humanities and engagement, these are typically accessed by organisations rather than individuals.
She admitted that as well as lacking funding, scientists often saw no professional advantage in public engagement. But she said this was changing as senior academics realised its ability to improve staff communication skills and grasp of their work’s wider social significance.
She hoped that by making it “much more straightforward” for Wellcome- funded researchers to access dedicated funding (as well as training and support) for public engagement, more people would get involved. But applicants will be expected to submit high-quality proposals specifying who they “want to talk to and why, and what is the best way to do it”.
“It’s important to do high-quality public engagement if we want to attract young people into science and make it part of the national conversation. We can do more damage by doing it badly,” she said.
Depending on their scale, the applications will be reviewed either in- house or in consultation with external experts.
Ms Matterson insisted that the trust would continue to fund outstanding researchers not interested or skilled in public engagement. But the charity’s assessment of the public engagement element of proposals will be communicated to peer-review panels and she envisaged it being used as a tiebreaker between applications of similar scientific quality. If that encouraged applicants to take public engagement seriously, that “would not upset” her.
There is no upper or lower limit on bids, but the trust expects to dedicate up to £4.5 million a year on the initiative, roughly 1 per cent of its budget.
“If a major funding organisation comes forward and says ‘Yes, public engagement is important and we are going to ensure you have the money to do it properly,’ that will hopefully send a very important message,” Ms Matterson said.