Making the case: arguments for engaging with the public

Exploring ways of ‘making the case’ for engagement with the public.

updated on 07 Feb 2024
7 minutes read


It is increasingly accepted that engagement with the public is essential if universities are to maintain their ‘licence to practice’, maintain public and political support – and demonstrably create value for wider society. 

Like all institutions, universities are held to increasingly high standards. The sector risks the following perceptions if it doesn’t engage effectively: 

  • Irrelevant: out of touch and failing to create value for wider society 
  • Unaccountable: not answerable for the public money institutions receive 
  • Distrusted: not believed to be acting in the best interests of society   
  • Self-serving: representing and serving the interests of an elite  

These challenges require thoughtful, purposeful and well executed engagement with the public, built on robust foundations.  

The framework below is a helpful way of summarising different rationales for why universities should engage with the public. We have adapted it from work by Fiorino (1989) and Stirling (2008), exploring rationales for opening up the governance of science to more involvement form the public and other societal stakeholders.   

Rationales for Engaging with the Public

Normative imperatives: it's the right thing to do

We engage because we have a moral and social responsibility to do so and because democratic ideals call for maximum participation, to allow those who are affected by decisions to have influence. 

Substantic imperatives: it allows us to realise better outcomes

We engage because non-experts see problems, issues and solutions that experts miss. Participation increases the quality of academic work and the functioning of universities.

Instrumental imperatives: it's a way to secure useful ends

We engage because it makes decisions more legitimate, that engagement supports the incumbent interests of academics and universities. 

We know that when wider society is involved, research and innovation become more relevant and useful for everyone. This brings more people into the research and innovation workforce, and eases the path to adoption and diffusion of new ideas and technologies, making it more likely that everyone will benefit from the UK’s investments in research and innovation. For these reasons, a key priority for everyone working in research and innovation must be to forge much deeper connections with wider society.

UKRI Public Engagement Strategy

Normative imperatives (it’s the right thing to do)

Normative imperatives (it’s the right thing to do)  

For many people working in universities, engaging with the public is viewed as the ‘right thing to do’.  For some, the motivation could be characterised as a ‘public service’ mindset: it is our responsibility and duty to ensure that our work creates maximum benefit for all citizens. There is a widely shared perception that universities lost sight of their social responsibility in the second half of the 20th Century, becoming too inward looking, and driven by the pursuit of research rankings, internal competition, and global influence at the expense of serving the needs of citizens and their local communities. This is especially the case for research intensive universities. It is now widely accepted that Universities should acknowledge their power and privilege and seek to maximise opportunities for all citizens to contribute to and participate in knowledge creation and application.  

A second normative orientation might be termed a ‘democratic’ mindset. There is argued to have been a ‘participatory turn’ in public policy, challenging the assumption that experts and elites should hold decision making power, with ordinary citizens serving as ‘beneficiaries’ of that expertise. The participatory approach starts from a different place: institutions like universities need to turn from being paternalistic and hierarchical, to more collaborative and egalitarian relationships between experts and publics, for instance by consulting with citizens about new and emerging technologies. 

A third normative orientation might be termed a ‘systems’ mindset: this starts from the belief that we face complex and ‘wicked’ societal challenges which can only be tackled by collective action taken across boundaries. It requires a ‘whole system’ approach, where efforts are aligned. For universities to intervene productively in the world, they need to operate in a more collaborative fashion and to take account of the multiple viewpoints and orientations of different stakeholders, including the public.  

What these normative orientations share is a conviction that the production of knowledge has moral, social and political dimensions. As a consequence of this, universities and researchers have a social responsibility to recognise and value the needs, interests and expertise of the public, through engaging purposefully with them.  

Substantive imperatives (it allows us to achieve better outcomes)

Substantive imperatives emphasise the contribution that public engagement makes to the quality and impact of the work that universities undertake. It helps to make the work more relevant and amplify the value and impact it creates outside the university. It also helps to maintain the trustworthiness of the work.  

Research and knowledge building are socially situated processes, shaped by cultural, institutional and social contexts. By finding better methods to ‘connect’ the knowledge created in universities with the wider world we can realise better outcomes: our work will be richer and better informed and its value outside academia will be greater too. 

Arguments for ‘relevance’ emphasise that non-experts see problems, issues and solutions that experts miss. These arguments are well made in the article ‘The Three R’s: How Community Based Participatory Research Strengthens the Rigor, Relevance and Reach of Science’:  

Rigor refers to the practice and promotion of good science—in the study design, data collection and interpretation phases of research. Relevance refers to whether science is asking the right questions. For environmental health, relevant research emphasizes appropriate causes of exposure and elucidates opportunities for action or change. Reach encapsulates the degree to which knowledge is disseminated to diverse audiences and translated into useful tools for the scientific, regulatory, policy and lay arenas. 

Similar arguments have been made in relation to student learning: providing opportunities to engage with the public as part of the curriculum increases the relevance of the curriculum, helps generate positive social outcomes, and also helps contribute to student  employability.  

Arguments about trust emphasise how engagement helps to anticipate social and ethical sensitivities, and to combat distrust of research. This is in the context of rapidly changing modes of communication, with the rise of new digital channels and platforms, increasing scepticism about experts, and a proliferation of sources of misinformation. The All European Learned Societies’ paper Trust in Science and Changing Landscapes of Communication argues that these shifts have 

‘strong implications for researchers, but also for policymakers, society and intellectual life more broadly. It means that researchers and academic institutions, to maintain and reclaim trust and trustworthiness, must rethink the way in which they present research to and engage with different publics’. 

Instrumental imperatives (it is a way to secure useful ends)

There are also very pragmatic reasons for engaging with the public. Viewed through the lens of accountability, if universities don’t prioritise public benefit, they risk losing public and political support. Engagement can be seen as a tactical route to secure future funding and a licence to practice. 

Statutory obligations also play a part. Universities have (exempt) charitable status. They do not have to be charity commission registered, but their charitable status means they must work towards the public good, regulated by OFS. 

Why public engagement matters

The NCCPE is committed to helping universities to build more inclusive practices into their work. 

We started with the risks that the HE sector faces if it fails to engage effectively: increasing irrelevance, loss of public support, decreasing trust and perceived lack of accountability. We then spelt out various arguments which can be used to explain how engagement helps address these risks. 

So what would be different, if universities acted on the imperatives outlined above? What might a fully engaged sector behave and be perceived by the public? 


  • Researchers are trusted to act ethically and responsibly ​ 
  • New, controversial areas of research are debated, and public attitudes taken account of  


  • Research and teaching are more finely tuned to society’s needs​ 
  • Innovation flourishes as new ideas & insights flow into HEIs​ 
  • Research outputs are easily accessible and widely used​ 
  • Young people see research careers as relevant and attractive​ 


  • Those with a stake in the impact of research feel they can influence investment priorities​ 
  • The purposes and impact of research are understood and valued by wider society​ 

Social Responsibility 

  • Universities are seen to act in socially responsible ways, minimising their environmental footprint and supporting social mobility 

Challenges to the work of universities are growing more intense. In this context, embracing the ‘engagement’ mindsets outlined above is an imperative. The NCCPE can help, so do get in touch if you would like advice. You can browse some of our other resources below.