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Ethical and social issues

Understanding the ethics of engagement


Ethical and social issues are present in everything. Discoveries that affect society, however major or minor the impact, have inherent ethical and social issues and the people who engage with your research will have views about them, many of which may differ significantly from yours. You may be interested in engaging directly with these issues, exploring the values held by yourself and people who engage with your research. In any case, you will need to be aware of any issues affecting your target audience, and to deal with them sensitively.

  • Identifying ethical issues
    • One straight forward way to identify any ethical or social issues that may arise from engaging the public with your research, is to ask yourself a few simple questions:

    • - What are the applications of my research in society?
    • - What societal changes might occur as a result of these applications? What are the knock on effects of these changes?
    • - What impact might the application of my research have on different members of society? Who might be sensitive to these issues?
    • - If there are positive impacts on certain members of society, are there also negative impacts on other groups as a result?
    • - Does it raise questions associated with morality, legality, equality and fairness?
    • - Are there any associated religious, political, cultural, gender-based or social class related issues?

    • If it is difficult for you to imagine applying these questions to your own research, take this scenario as an example: Imagine that you are a researcher in nutrition and health. You have discovered that active play and exercise is beneficial for the health and development of children and that increased participation in structured, extra-curricular sport will lead to a reduction of cardiovascular disease and obesity. You would like to engage family groups with your research and discussions about the value of exercise.

    • This may seem like a subject that is fairly free of ethical issues, but if you apply the above questions, you will see there are a number of different groups who will have investment in these issues. These include:

    • - People with strong views on diet and nutrition (including vegetarians and vegans)
    • - People with a family history of cardiovascular disease
    • - People with obesity issues (including those who have medical conditions which contribute to their problems)
    • - Those responsible for budgeting physical activity provision in schools and communities
    • - Parents – ranging from parents who encourage active participation in sport, parents of problem teenagers and parents of obese children
    • - People with mobility issues may also be sensitive to this subject

    • The above example should begin to indicate the range of deeply personal experiences related to your topic and highlight how each group may have a different viewpoint on your research, which needs to be fully appreciated.
  • Working with ethical issues
    • Discussions of ethical and social issues can be highly effective in engaging audiences; helping people to see the relevance of new research to their own lives, as well as exploring, and consulting upon, values held by different groups and individuals. Even if you do not choose to run an ethically based discussion, the issues are likely to arise in some form. Be aware that some members of your audience might have considerable investment in the subject matter. Think about their reasons for coming. It may be that they have chosen to attend because they have personal experience and background knowledge of the subject matter e.g. an engagement activity about genetic inheritance of Cystic Fibrosis, may well attract audience members with a family history of the disease. Be sensitive to these issues and try to think of as many issues as you can in advance, but be prepared to be confronted with issues, which you have not yet considered. 

    • It is a valuable practice to spend some time reflecting on your own ethical stance and how it might differ from those you engage with. Be wary of presenting your own opinions as fact, and be respectful of all opinions, retaining an element of objectivity so others feel they are able to put their point of view across. Engagement can be an opportunity for dialogue and learning between people from all walks of life, it is important to find ways that ensure these opportunities are not missed no matter how challenging some people’s views may be.

    • Encourage participants to examine their own opinions, looking at opposing views and exploring their reasons for believing what they do. Draw out deeper discussions by presenting questions to the audience, e.g.
    • - Why do you think that?
    • - What is the reason for that?
    • - How do you know?
    • - Can you think of another argument against your view?
    • - Is there another argument for what you believe?
    • - If [a relevant scenario] were to happen, how would that make you feel?
    • - What affect would that have on other people?
  • Setting a framework
    • - Whatever your planned engagement activity may be, consider ways to set ground rules for mutual respect and tolerance.
    • - Ensure that criticisms are aimed at arguments, not people. Don’t allow people to personalise the issues – this may lead to defensiveness and a feeling of being attacked.
    • - Accept that there may be multiple perspectives and encourage the discussion of alternate views.
    • - Allow space and opportunity for all participants to air their views – don’t allow one person or group to dominate. But, don’t force people to speak up if they do not wish to – there is value for some people in simply sitting and listening to the comments.
    • - Ensure that you have mechanisms in place to diffuse heated situations.
    • - Use exemplars, anecdotes and facts from your research to present potential scenarios and implications, in order to draw out further questions.
    • - Look for the good news of your research and its implications - ethical debates don’t have to focus purely on the negative.