Doing and funding effective public engagement

Public engagement is an increasingly important part of a researcher’s job. It can take many forms: from giving a talk at a school to volunteering at your local science museum or even setting up camp at a music festival. It’s important to make these efforts as effective as possible and, of course, to secure the necessary funding. Helen Featherstone and Will Gosling gave their tips and advice in a public engagement workshop today at the joint BES/SFE conference in Lille.

We started with a discussion of what public engagement is and the different forms it can take. A wide range of activities are classified as public engagement but there are many different factors that determine whether that’s an accurate description.

For example, we discussed why hosting a public lecture in your department or University is not very effective public engagement if it’s only advertised on campus or if audience members are exclusively from the institution. In contrast, an interview on a local radio station has the potential to reach a wider audience but, again, it’s only truly “engagement” if it’s widely accessible and invites participation from listeners.

The crucial thing is to create a dialogue between a researcher and the public, as highlighted by the NCCPE definition of public engagement. Once this has been established, there are clear benefits for both researchers and the public.

For the target audience, engaging with science is a fun and rewarding way to tap into our innate curiosities about the natural world. This can be extended into feeling included in decision making and developing citizenship values that can influence how people behave and vote. On a more direct level, a lot of scientific research is funded by tax payers so engaging with outreach schemes is a way for people to find out how their money has been spent.

For researchers, getting involved with public engagement projects is a fun, exciting way of seeing a direct impact of your research. The growing popularity and success of citizen science schemes highlights how harnessing public interest in science, particularly in the natural world can also bring great research benefits. From a more career-minded perspective, strong public engagement can also bring research kudos helping to boost your profile, citations and prospects for your next grant application.

Helen and Will discussed the BES flagship public engagement from the centenary year in 2013: “Sex, bugs and rock n’ roll”. Armed with giant insect suits and some specimens of the real thing, scientists hit the road last year to bring ecology to music festivals across the UK. Their video trailer gives some idea of the success of the project.

Increased public engagement is a key part of the new BES strategic plan. Hopefully we will see the enthusiastic team at many more upcoming festivals and events.

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter: @SiveFinlay