Public engagement with research: making sense of the diversity

Sandy Oliver, Professor of Public Policy at the Institute of Education, compares engagement to a thriving cottage industry and proposes a framework to help us to learn from different approaches, and to develop more effective engaged practice.

Assorted approaches to public engagement
Enthusiasm for public engagement with research, held first by individuals and then by organizations, has led to a proliferation of public engagement methods. The history, expectations, and methods of public engagement vary across academic disciplines because ideas have evolved in different settings. Exhibitions, music, books, plays, and films engage people with arts and humanities research. Consultations, collaborations, or public control feature in health and social policy research [1] [2]. Attracting large numbers of volunteers to count birds or record the colour of the sea are examples of crowdsourcing data to advance what we know through environmental science [3] [4]. Crowdsourcing of analytical power engages personal computers and their operators’ creativity to solve problems in the natural sciences [5]. Community engagement benefits humanities research and public health research [6] [7]. Value-focused thinking guides decisions requiring risk analysis in environmental management [8].

Sharing lessons between academic disciplines and policy sectors about these assorted approaches to public engagement has been difficult because we have not had a shared language or shared understanding of public engagement with research in all its variant forms. Although those of us actively involved in public engagement in our own areas understand our own reasons and histories, we do not have a shared understanding of why and how these variant forms have evolved more broadly. Under what circumstances, and using what methods, is it appropriate to ask outsiders to co-direct the focus of our work, to help improve the quality of our work, to share the data collection and analysis, or to interpret its meaning? To answer these questions and to embed public engagement in the core business of universities we need a framework that accommodates this diversity.

Figure 1
Figure 1: A framework for considering the diversity of public engagement with research

An emerging framework for public engagement

Figure 1 proposes a tentative overarching framework to help us see similarities and differences across public engagement activities. It combines what people bring to research, both researchers and outsiders (left hand column), the purpose of their participation in research (middle column) and the generic activities this entails (right hand column). While as professional researchers we bring to research a body of empirical and theoretical knowledge, together with research methods skills, we can also usefully draw on other people to enhance our work. We can engage people from outside of the research community who hold complementary interests in research, interests in how public funds are spent or in the ethics of research, to enhance research governance by sharing decisions about what research is done, and how. We can work with people whose interests overlap with ours and bring complementary knowledge to help design research, to help engage people we find ‘hard to reach’, and to comment on research findings, share them through their networks, and draw on them when making decisions. We can coordinate volunteers willing to donate their time, computers, and brain-power to collect, translate, or analyse data. We can raise aspirations, inspire enquiring minds and seed new careers through hosting public events or visiting their schools or communities.

These contributions, purposes and activities are not mutually exclusive. Rather one or more may apply simultaneously to public engagement initiatives. Such a framework can be used for three purposes. One purpose is to compare approaches that have evolved in different areas of research in order to share lessons between them. For instance, clear communication of research which has been particularly well developed for engaging enquiring minds with the natural sciences may help health and social researchers invite people with complementary knowledge to actively contribute to research projects. Similarly, medical scientists unconvinced about the ability of the public to enhance research relevance and use may be interested to learn how crowdsourcing analytical power has helped molecular biology and other disciplines. A second purpose is to clarify appropriate public engagement methods. For instance, a large workforce is required for extending the reach of data collection, but not for enhancing research relevance through engaging people in the design of studies and research tools. A third purpose is to present a coherent picture of the value of public engagement across academia.

This framework makes sense of the diversity of public engagement by linking what different publics bring to research with the different purposes of (and approaches for) their engagement with research. It provides an overview to understand the value of public engagement and its role in research and decision-making more broadly, and a point of reference for choosing appropriate approaches.

Looking back – looking forwards
Looking back, each different approach to engaging outsiders with research can be seen as a thriving cottage industry driven by the enthusiasm and skills of individuals bearing in mind the needs and opportunities for their individual projects. The framework proposed here illustrates how this assortment of public engagement activities can be presented in terms better suited both to sharing ideas between these cottage industries to evolve faster, and to the strategic thinking required to maximise research, its  governance, transparency, relevance, efficiency, dissemination,  use and public support. Looking forward, I envisage public engagement with research not only being at the heart of individual research projects, but as an integral part of the core business of universities and at the heart of their strategic planning to help them respond to fast changing external circumstances.

These ideas first appeared in Sandy Oliver’s inaugural professorial lecture (Oliver S (2013) Research for All. Institute of Education Press, London. ISBN 9781782770275). Michael Reiss and Rebecca Rees provided helpful comments on earlier versions of the text.

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[1] Arnstein, S.R. (1969) ‘A ladder of citizen participation’. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35 (4), 216–24.

[2] Hayes, H., Buckland, S., and Tarpey, M. (2012) Briefing notes for researchers: Public involvement in NHS, public health and social care research. London: National Institute for Health Research.

[3] Dickinson, J.L., Shirk, J., Bonter, D., Bonney, R., Crain, R.L., Martin, J., Phillips, T., and Purcell, K. (2012) ‘The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement’. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10, 291–97.

[4] Wernand, M.R., Ceccaroni, L., Piera, J., and Zielinski, O. (the Citclops consortium) (undated) Crowdsourcing technologies for the monitoring of the colour, transparency and fluorescence of the sea. Online:

[5] Hand, E. (2010) ‘People power’. Nature, 466, 685–87.

[6] Hale, A. (undated) ‘Linking communities to historic environments: A research review summary’. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Online:

[7] O’Mara-Eves, A., Brunton, G., McDaid, D., Oliver, S., Kavanagh, J., Jamal, F., Matosevic, T., Harden, A., and Thomas, J. (in press) ‘Community engagement to reduce inequalities in health: A systematic review, meta-analysis and economic analysis’. NIHR Public Health Research programme journal (working title).

[8] Arvai, J.L., Gregory, R., and McDaniels, T.L. (2001) ‘Testing a structured decision approach: Value-focused thinking for deliberative risk communication’. Risk Analysis, 21 (6), 1065–76.

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