Viewpoint: Mary Bownes
- Current role:
- Vice Principal
- University of Edinburgh
Professor Mary Bownes, Vice Principal University of Edinburgh, believes that public engagement with research is one of those things where, if done well, everyone wins.
Mary Bownes studied for her degree and D.Phil. at the University of Sussex and undertook postdoctoral research in Germany and California before taking a lectureship in Genetics and Developmental Biology at the University of Essex. She moved to the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh in 1979 to set up a group investigating the genetic and molecular basis of ovarian development in Drosophila. She has been head of the Institute of Molecular Biology.
Mary is now Vice Principal (Pro-VC) at the University of Edinburgh with responsibility in postgraduate affairs, widening participation, recruitment, admission, scholarships, community relations and social responsibility and sustainability. She is a Professor of Developmental Biology and Director of the Scottish Institute for Biotechnology Education. Mary has published over 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and supervised the training of more than 27 PhD students.
Science communication is a particular interest of Mary's, especially the development of materials for use in schools and at science festivals to encourage people to take an active interest in new advances in biotechnology and how it affects everyday life. She is also very active in encouraging and enabling researchers to engage with the public about their research.
She led the team from a number of Higher Education Institutes and other partners in Edinburgh to become a Beacon of Public Engagement. Mary is a Fellow of the Institute of Biology, the Royal Entomological Society, the Royal Society of Arts and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh She is on the Board of Highlands & Islands Enterprise and is a member of the BBSRC Appointment Committee.
You can email Mary at Mary.Bownes@ed.ac.uk.
Why Researchers and Universities need to engage with the Public
Much of the research done in Universities is funded from the public purse as grants from the Funding Councils, from Government or charities. Universities exist to investigate and research, to offer an appropriate learning environment for students and for knowledge exchange (often narrowly interpreted as commercial outcomes, especially in science and technology). It is this knowledge exchange that is the key to why there needs to be dialogue between researchers, research users and the public.
Many studies impact on people living in Edinburgh, Scotland and beyond. We need to engage with the public about our research so they can understand where we are going with it, why we are doing it and how it can affect their everyday lives, offering them the opportunity to make informed choices about what they do with their lives. Once they have had that engagement, and it often needs to be two-way so they can ask questions and get a real understanding of what research findings can do for them and what it can't, then the population can start to feel sufficiently confident to influence policy and really have a say in how many things will develop in the country.
The whole methodology of research, collecting data and seriously evaluating what it means and how robust it is can be of value to anyone and can help individuals in making lifestyle choices, decisions about health and well-being and see how their behaviour can influence the future of the planet. Further, policy-makers dramatically affect what happens now and in the future in terms of technology, health, welfare, land and sea use, energy, the environment and much, much more. These policies affect everyone, so they need to be based on evidence. Researchers who understand how the data is collected, what it does and doesn't show and can and can't predict, need to engage directly with policy makers as well as the public to influence this process of setting policy.
Although my own background is in Biology and I have long been engaged in science communication, public engagement and outreach, the differences between the disciplines in terms of the types of public engagement undertaken and how researchers approach it, never ceases to amaze me. Many of the things I hear are excellent examples of engagement and somehow we need to learn from each other. Sometimes researchers think of press and TV, "one-way communication", but which gets ideas across to large sectors of the public. For others their academic research actually directly involves public discussion and surveys and since they are funded by the Government, their findings are taken seriously and their findings are implemented. This is especially true in education. Some of the biggest differences lie between basic research and those doing research in the professions such as social work, education, healthcare, nursing, medicine and law. Development in medical sciences often hits the press and TV, but can be inaccurate or sensationalist, raising people's hopes for quick treatments. Some of the connections may not be immediately obvious, like the link between research into language and speech therapists, or how to help people with autism. In Art and Music much activity is about taking exhibitions and performances to the public, and Architects put their ideas into real buildings or gardens. There are also some disciplines such as social and political studies where researchers are very much experts in the conduct of public engagement and there are specific centres looking at new technologies and their impact on society. Scientists and engineers often engage directly with schools and with the public through events and festivals or specific visitor centres such as museums, gardens, public galleries or zoos.
We can't all engage with everyone, so selecting the best type of engagement for individual researchers based upon what they are researching, their communication skills and career stage is important. The key here lies in matching the style of communication to the type of audience and picking the right venue and the right time. Sometimes a big public lecture or a TV appearance is perfect to convey messages to big groups of people at once. However, there is a need to be more interactive on many occasions and have more dialogue so groups of related talks with lots of time for questions and discussions and workshop style approaches can be very fruitful. Another is the idea of skills/exhibits with information and sometimes activities, but with a researcher on hand to interact with visitors directly. There are, or course, many valid possibilities.
So there is no one-size fits all. Public engagement with research is one of those things where, if done well, everyone wins. So let's look briefly at how the different stakeholders benefit.
Researchers have a captive audience with whom to share their subject and their enthusiasm for their discipline. Sometimes this rejuvenates and reminds them exactly why they do research when faced with the day to day struggle of getting funding, getting papers published and getting acknowledgement for discoveries or new ideas. Further, an interested audience, particularly when they are not experts in the area, can often ask questions that make researchers rethink their approach or consider new multidisciplinary collaborations which significantly take forward their research design and progress. There can be publicity in the media as events are covered, which can engender acceptance and creditability amongst peers. Also seeing their own findings, based on evidence, influencing policy and the behaviour of the public can be really exciting. For some researchers public engagement is fully embedded into their research project, especially those involved in policy development or the professions, but for others this involves interacting with new groups of people, which is always stimulating. There is even evidence from a survey in France that scientific researchers who engage with the public perform better in their research (Jensen, P, Rouquier, JP, Kreimer, P & Croissant, Y. Scientists who engage with society perform better academically. Science and Public Policy, 35(7):527-541, Aug 2008).
For the funders, having their researchers enthuse the wider community about their research is crucial. The Research Councils are using Government funds and selecting the best research and researchers to support and it is crucial that the impact of this research is visible. Similarly, Government funded research needs to be accessible, especially, for example, when it relates to social services or medical issues or land use. Charities need to show that their money is used to advance their chosen cause. Finally, the University Funders, the Scottish, Welsh and English Funding Councils need to show that their Universities in the broadest sense are actively involved in knowledge exchange. Everyone who pays for research needs to demonstrate the value to society of scholarship and investigation and how can they do this if no-one knows about it?
It is of enormous value to Universities to engage with the wider world. Their whole mission is to study and acquire knowledge by discussion, scholarship and research and to share that knowledge with their students and beyond. Universities need to be seen to be of value to the many communities they affect and to listen to their needs. Their researchers and teachers impact on all aspects of society by providing qualified students, doctors, vets, lawyers social workers teachers etc. and by their research funding, yet this role is not always appreciated. To be seen by a broad sector of society as valuable contributors to the way the world is shaped will ensure their sustainability, and that the impact of their work is seen.
The policies made by government concerning so many things - health, education, transport, energy, food production, social services and more - affect everyone. They need to be informed by evidence, though sometimes there are conflicts between politicians needing to deliver something that has a rapid impact and the fact that many policies need much more time for their potential value to be measured. There are also genuine conflicts between sustainability compared to economic development, health and education provision compared to cost, etc. Where we fit into the global network is also key as what happens elsewhere dramatically affects our lives in the UK and vice-versa.
So, there is a real need for policy-makers to engage with researchers in a wide range of disciplines, many of whom will themselves have conflicting interpretations of what is best to do to develop policies that are robust and are likely to deliver what is wanted. Having an informed and involved public will help this process because public opinion can then influence policies and behaviour more rapidly experts.
Discussing progress in research with the public enables them to make better informed lifestyle choices for themselves, their families and generations to follow. Understanding risks in relation to medical treatment, why you need careful studies before introducing novel treatments, how global warming could affect the planet and their life can help with making hard choices. Discussion shows how our background and experience, different cultures and views can dramatically affect the choices people make. Having an informed public that is empowered and actively engaged can influence the policies made and give people much more control over their lives. I also think people really value having the chance to air their opinions and bring different sets of experiences and knowledge into the equation, especially when they can see they can influence the direction of research to find out things that can help develop more acceptable and sustainable policies.