Guidance on engaging the public with your research

Public engagement can add value to the work of all researchers at any stage of their career and in any research field. We actively encourage researchers to involve the public in their research.

Some types of public engagement may not require much funding, for example a talk in a school or attending a festival to talk about your research. Other types will require appropriate resources, from staff time to materials and funding for partner costs.

You should consider the resources you will require to involve the public in your work when you apply for research funding. This will ensure that you have adequate resources to effectively deliver your engagement activities.

Key principles

Public engagement can take different forms depending on the purpose of your engagement and the people you need to engage with to achieve your aims. Examples are outlined below.

Open dialogue

These are activities that involve a diverse range of voices in the planning and execution of your research, to understand public perspectives and values.

This could involve simple conversations about your research, either in person or online, with people who aren’t part of your university or research group. Or it could involve more in-depth, structured engagements, from including community voices in research committees to taking part in public dialogues, such as those run by the Sciencewise programme.

Participatory research

These methods involve non-academic partners in the research process, from school children to communities. This could include shaping:

  • the research question
  • data collection and analysis
  • interpretation of findings
  • dissemination.

Citizen science, co-production and patient and public involvement in research all come under this category.

Inspiring the next generation

This includes engaging with young people, through:

  • museum exhibitions
  • festivals
  • games
  • school visits
  • talks
  • participatory research.

This is to nurture a future generation of empowered and informed citizens and encourage:

  • the development of research skills (including STEM skills)
  • an interest in research careers.

Open innovation

These are activities that excite, inspire and involve people in applied research and innovation programmes aimed at solving important societal issues.

Best practice

Having a clear reason for wanting to engage with the public and a clear purpose for your activities will help you choose the right approach.

Thinking about your activities from the point of view of participants will help you design activities that benefit both you and the public, for example:

  • who are they
  • why would they want to participate
  • how will they benefit from taking part.

You may want to consider working with non-academic partners (for example community groups, museums, people with expertise in co-production) who can help you reach the groups you want to work with.

When working with non-academic partners, you should discuss their motivations and expectations of the partnership, as they may have different perspectives and approaches.

The best partnerships are ones that are transparent and based on mutual respect. All partners should have a clear understanding about the distribution of resources, responsibilities, efforts and benefits.

Some groups have more opportunities to engage with research and innovation than others. It is an important issue for the research and innovation system to close the gap between those groups who are able to participate and those who are unengaged.

When developing your approach to engaging the public with your research, you should consider what barriers there might be to different groups engaging and what you can do to broaden the focus of your engagement activities to include more underrepresented groups.

When working with the public you should ensure best practice in safeguarding, especially when working with children, young adults or vulnerable people.

Schools and extracurricular clubs will have specific measures you will need to follow to ensure the safety and protection of the young people they work with. You will have to follow these and ensure that you have considered issues specific to working with children in your project. You should seek advice from your institution about their own safeguarding and child protection policies.

Ethics review

The partners should agree a process for ethics review. You should aim to follow your institution’s ethical review process, health and safety, and child protection policies.

You should also consider that some sectors may approach ethical considerations differently and that discussion may be required to reach agreement. For guidance on ethics, please refer to NERC’s ethics guidance, the ESRC framework for research ethics and frequently-raised topics.

Further information

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the theory, practice and application of public engagement work.

What’s in it for me? The benefits of public engagement for researchers.

Engaging young people with cutting-edge research, a publication for researchers and teachers, providing helpful signposts and opportunities to start working together.

Co-production in research: guidance, legislation, and support, if you are looking to co-produce your project with the public.

Patients and the public, guidance and further information on involving and engaging with patients and the public.

The Engaging Researcher, a Vitae and National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement publication highlighting some of the many ways researchers can engage the public. It also offers practical tips for getting started and explores how public engagement can benefit researchers and the public

Evaluation: Practical guidelines, practical advice for anyone wanting to evaluate public engagement projects

National STEM Centre’s eLibrary contains contemporary materials, including print, multimedia and practical activities, and archive resources from recent decade

Concordat for engaging the public with research.

Last updated: 18 April 2024

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