What is public engagement?
The most widely accepted definition of public engagement is that given by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE):
“Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”
This could take place at any part of the research lifecycle and should go beyond outreach and should instead focus on creating two way dialogue between researchers and the “public”. That could be as simple as incorporating an open discussion into a public lecture, but could be as detailed as doing a piece of research in partnership with the public.
How you engage will be heavily influenced by what your research is about, and who is society that piece of research has the potential to impact. A good general recommendation however is to plan from the beginning how you will engage your stakeholders at different milestones throughout the project, and consider a mixture of both dissemination and more active engagement through the cycle of the project.
Who the “public” are, should vary depending on your research. You are unlikely to generate significant impact by collectively viewing people as the general public, however you may be more successful by considering instead who your research users may be and instead focussing on engaging those pockets of the public.
How public engagement can help to develop your research impact
In order to achieve impact you are likely to need to use a combination of pathways, of which public engagement can be a powerful option. For example if you were looking to embed policy change based on your research, getting public opinion on side through public engagement to both disseminate facts and also inform your research to begin with, may make it a lot easier to get policy makers to listen – especially if you’re dealing with a topic that may be considered controversial.
The public can be influential lobbyists – so giving the right information to the right people can be a powerful tool. Engaging with grassroots lobbyists who have a passion for the issue and the connections to lobby for change can make it easier to make a difference with your research.