What is Public Engagement?

Public engagement is a term that is widely used in a variety of sectors - from arts and heritage to science policy and local government. We've talked to many different people across the HE sector and research community to synthesise their views of what public engagement means to them, to inform our definition.

We think it's important to be inclusive and not to try to narrow the definition down too far. We also believe that the other types of engagement - for instance 'civic' or 'community' engagement - are part of the same family. What they all have in common is describing an aspiration to better connect the work of universities and research institutes with society.

NCCPE Definition

Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.

If you’re interested in other definitions, we’ve pulled together a list of other ways in which public engagement in higher education has been described, and provided links to other useful definitions and frameworks

Public Engagement and Higher Education

The Discover Science event run by the University of Edinburgh during Edinburgh International Science Festival Douglas Robertson

Public Engagement isn't something new that universities need to start doing: recent research has demonstrated how much engagement is actually already going on, with a survey of 22,000 academics in 2009 revealing that over 35% were involved in some form of outreach activity1. However, despite enthusiasm for engaging with the public, there is compelling evidence that many staff and students in universities are not well supported or encouraged to work in this way. The Royal Society's report 'Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers' in 2006'2 found that 64% of scientists said that the need to spend more time on research was stopping them getting more engaged and 20% agreed that scientists who engage are less well regarded by other scientists. 

The 2010 report by the Science For All expert group3 identified how the professional culture of many academic institutions still inhibits engagement. And the 2009 ScoPE report4 also demonstrated that while many senior academics believe engagement is important, they don't encourage young researchers to do it, fearing its impact on their careers.

It was exactly these kinds of challenge which led to the setting up of the Beacons for Public Engagement initiative in 2008. Elsewhere on this website we explain some of the different ways in which universities are trying to tackle this challenge. In this section we explain more about what public engagement in practice can actually look like.

What next?

In the next section we explore the different purposes that public engagement can serve.