Skills Weaving Blog 8: The benefits of public engagement

Popular culture tends to portray scientists as disconnected otherworldly individuals who pursue their research in solitude. Although such stereotypes may hold some validity, they concept of the ivory tower does not fairly represent the reality of science. Therefore, it is important to dedicate effort to bridging the gap between science and society. Those who efficiently interact with the lay audience will find it rewarding, and it can greatly benefit both from a professional and personal perspective. In this week’s Skills Weaving Blog, we will highlight the importance of public engagement, introduce a few examples on how to get started, and illustrate the benefits regarding your skill development.


What is public engagement, and why should we care?
There are many forms of public engagement and they all come down to the interaction between scientists and the lay audience. Depending on the format, such interactions can be uni- or bi-directional, but fostering real engagement requires bi-directional approaches. True public engagement is about transitioning from doing research ‘about’ and ‘for’ the public, towards doing it ‘with’ or ‘by’ them. One central aspect in public engagement, especially when it comes to lay specialists, is to appreciate that having a professional education does not provide a unique privilege or authority when it comes to knowledge. An excellent example is Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in biomedical research: Patients can provide unique perspectives based on their personal experience, which can be vital when it comes to the design and clinical translation of research.
A main goal of public engagement is sharing information about research and its outcomes with the public and end-beneficiaries. This requires general and targeted dissemination towards relevant audiences and stakeholders. Another benefit of public engagement, and PPI in particular, is that it can increase the quality, relevance, and translation of research projects into meaningful outcomes. Also, increased transparency about research is essential to increase the overall trust in science. Engagement is also relevant when it comes to public opinion on science-related policies like research funding, ethics, animal experimentation, international relations, and other regulations. 


Examples of public engagement
Open days: One of the most feasible and engaging ways to interact with the public is hosting an open day. Many research institutions host annual events where they open the doors for those who are interested. Such open days allow for direct personal interactions through discussions, oral and poster presentations, demonstrations, and interactive experiments.
Communication and dissemination: A great way to get started with public engagement is to actively communicate research outcomes towards a lay audience. This can be achieved through press releases, publications in traditional and online media, and interviews. A public summary of your research on the institutional or private website can also stimulate public engagement. The communication department of your research institution may inform you about opportunities, institutional regulations, and provide you with support related to public engagement.
Events and exhibitions: Public lectures, hosted by research institutions, allow to present research findings directly to a general audience. There are many formats, ranging from traditional presentations to science slams. Other examples include contributing to panel discussions, museum exhibits, films and documentaries, or exhibitions in the public space. 
Citizen Science projects: A specific type of public engagement that requires direct involvement of the public in research. Participatory research outsources data collection, and sometimes even analysis and interpretation, to members of the public. Great examples can be found in the environmental sciences, where the public can help to collect data about bio-diversity, hydrology, or glacier retraction. Most research institutions are actively setting up support structures and trainings on Citizen and Participative Science, so make sure to check out if these approaches can be relevant for your research.   
Advisory roles and project design: A final aspect to highlight is the involvement of the public in project design and as advisors to research projects. The public, and lay experts in particular, can offer a valuable and refreshing perspective on research. Consider their experiences and involve them from early stages in project design onwards if that is relevant to your research. It may be worth to share draft research proposals to receive suggestions and feedback. Also, they can be great contributors when it comes to advisory boards and steering committees of larger research projects.


Benefits with respect to career advancement
Communicator: One key benefit of public engagement is that it improves your communication skills by conveying your message to a different target audience. Usually, researchers communicate with peers, and it requires specific skills to interact with non-scientists. Such communication skills can only be developed with regular practice.
Networker: Public engagement is a great way to expand your network, not only with the public, but also with other professionals working in your field. It raises general awareness about your research and can improve your reputation, which can translate in unique opportunities when peers and others reach out to you.
Strategist: Science and innovation should not be performed in an ivory tower, as it plays an integral role in society. Engaging with the public will give you a better understanding of your position as a researcher in the bigger picture. 
Self-developer: Public engagement will push you beyond your comfort zone, where real personal and professional growth takes place. Make use of these opportunities and you may find exciting and rewarding opportunities for personal, professional,  and career development.


What’s next?
•    Reflect on the relevance of public engagement for your research
•    Actively communicate about your research with the general public 
•    Participate in public engagement events of your research institution


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