quality practice

Can the public really be meaningfully involved in research?

updated on 04 Oct 2023
4 minutes

02 / 03 / 2017: Sophie Duncan, NCCPE Deputy Director, gives her answers to key questions asked about public engagement with research. What do you think?

Participant reading Research for All publication

At the heart of great engagement is an understanding of the people you want to engage with. Having worked at the NCCPE for 8 years where I am surrounded by people who think public engagement is really important, it can be easy to forget that for many, public engagement is a marginal, little understood activity. I was reminded of this recently, when a journalist who was interested in the new Research for All journal asked me the following questions. I share my answers here, and invite you to share your responses in the comments below.

What is the most effective argument for engaging the public in research?

There are lots of good reasons to engage the public with research – but the most compelling, in my view, is the fact that it can make a difference. It can inspire curiosity and wonder; lead to new products or services; change behaviours; challenge perceived wisdoms; stimulate innovation; or solvie problems. Also, it isn’t just about changing society, it is about improving the quality of research itself.

Research is described in the REF as a process of investigation leading to insights effectively shared. So what does it mean to effectively share research? In part, it is about mobilising research knowledge to make a difference. However public engagement isn't only about dissemination of research but also about consultation, collaboration and co-production, where the expertise of those outside the academy informs and inspires new ways of thinking and doing - bringing insights into the research, enhancing the skills of the researchers and creating more fertile ground for impact.

This broad spectrum of activities forms the basis of the new journal. Research for All recognises that the processes of engagement matter, and that they need to be crafted to the purposes of engagement.

What, in your view, works and doesn’t work?

A key ingredient to effective engagement is for researchers to approach it with curiosity and a genuine interest in the views of others, prepared to learn as well as to share, to recognise the value of the expertise of different groups of people. It also helps to recognise that across all forms of engagement there is both academic and professional engagement expertise that can enhance your approach. So Research for All provides an opportunity to reflect on and critique the different processes of engagement and to share approaches across different disciplines. Engagement is a skilled craft that requires rigour in planning and execution.

The NCCPE has developed a core set of quality ingredients for effective engagement, namely:

  • Have a clear purpose. This means understanding the social context of your work, and being clear what you are hoping to achieve.
  • Be thoughtful about who you want to engage with, and ensure that you have done all you can to understand why they might want to engage with you, so you can cater for their interests and needs appropriately. Be open to what you can learn from them.
  • Choose an approach that is relevant to your purpose and participants. This may include working with partners with relevant engagement expertise.
  • Pick the right time – including where in the research cycle you are choosing to engage, and being timely about when you choose to engage.
  • Use evaluation to inform what you do, and to assess its value, outcomes and impact.

Can the public really be meaningfully involved in areas where lay knowledge is limited?

The short answer is yes – if you think really carefully about the purpose of the engagement, and tailor it carefully. We need to be thoughtful about how public engagement with research fits the nature of the discipline, ensuring the purpose we pick is appropriate and relevant to those we seek to engage, and opening up the opportunity to learn and explore together.

An appropriate engagement approach can be found for any group of the public. The first issue of Research for All picks up some of these approaches, including:

Engaged research is important to our society. From inspiring amateur astronomy groups with new research into supernovae; to supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children to share their experiences, and so encourage more foster families to foster them – engagement enables us to make a difference.

Research for All is a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), and is published by UCL IOE Press.