Research and innovation for all: UKRI’s public engagement strategy



Research and innovation are driven by curiosity about ourselves and the world around us, and a desire to fix problems and make things better.

These are very fundamental human drives that we all experience and act on every day. This is reflected in our research and innovation system, which is focused on advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, developing tomorrow’s technologies and addressing global and national challenges.

This work creates opportunities and benefits for all, but too often feels remote and inaccessible to the wider public, fuelled by the misperception that research and innovation is something done exclusively by clever people in specialist institutions and organisations. In addition, advances in research and innovation contribute to the fast pace of change in the modern world, driving significant benefits, but leaving many feeling left behind.

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 was established in 2018 as a result of the Nurse Review, which made the case for ‘a compact that bonds science and society, which will both deliver excellent science and ensure that it is used for the public good’.

UKRI’s new public engagement strategy outlines how we will break down the barriers between research, innovation and society, using our unique role as a funder of all research and innovation disciplines and sectors, and steward of a vibrant and healthy system.

We have identified 3 goals for our new public engagement strategy.

  1. Build a sense of shared endeavour by making research and innovation relevant and accessible to all. Research and innovation are central to the future of everyone in the UK. We want everyone to feel part of a shared endeavour, that is relevant, accessible, useful and worthy of their trust.
  2. Make sure the benefits of research and innovation are shared widely by supporting collaboration and valuing diverse forms of knowledge. Collaboration leads to better ideas, better research and innovation, and makes our investments more responsive to the needs of society. We want researchers, innovators, policymakers and publics to work together to advance knowledge, develop tomorrow’s technologies and address national and global challenges in partnership.
  3. Create opportunities for all by inspiring and engaging the next generation. Young people are our future decision-makers and the researchers and innovators of tomorrow. We want researchers and innovators to inspire and engage the next generation so they feel that research and innovation is open, accessible and something to which they can contribute and from which they can benefit throughout their lives.

How we developed this strategy

The development of this strategy has involved an extensive research and engagement process to understand the challenges that researchers and innovators, research organisations, policymakers, public engagement professionals and community groups face when connecting and collaborating.

This has included roundtables with diverse groups of people working in public engagement, museums, youth engagement, community engagement and universities. We have also commissioned research on community engagement, public dialogue, youth engagement and collaborative research. This research will be published on UKRI’s website.

We found that many people feel that research and innovation are inaccessible, that the system doesn’t value diverse knowledge and expertise, and that opportunities to engage are not open to all.

This matters if we are to harness the potential of research and innovation for the UK. UKRI’s public engagement strategy outlines how we aim to address these challenges.

UKRI's approach to public engagement with research and innovation

Public engagement includes all types of activity that seek to break down the barriers between research, innovation and society.

Collaborative research, patient and public involvement (PPI) and public dialogue are all ways that research and innovation can be co-created with the public. Festivals, museums and science centres aim to inspire publics and share knowledge. Schools engagement, including mentoring programmes and work placements, offers the next generation a window on the many career opportunities available in research and innovation and help them to develop useful skills.

UKRI supports many outstanding initiatives that foster a strong relationship with the public, for example:

These are some of the initiatives that show the impact that involving the public in research and innovation can have.

Building on these examples, we want to enable a step change in how people think about public engagement. The ultimate goal is for research and innovation to be no longer thought of as a segregated activity but rather as integral to our society.

We want everyone to value what they can learn from each other and we need to build considerations about society into everything that UKRI and the research and innovation community do: the challenges on which we choose to focus, the process of research and innovation, and how it is communicated.

Making change happen in a complex system

This strategy requires a significant shift in how the research and innovation community thinks about engagement and the process of creating and applying knowledge. It requires long-term interventions from UKRI and it requires researchers and innovators to do things differently.

Our work will focus on:

  • supporting culture change so that public engagement is seen as an integral and valuable part of every phase of research and innovation and is embedded in funding
  • working in partnership, ensuring that UKRI builds on work that is done by others
  • investing in infrastructure and partnerships to build the skills, capacities and networks that enable long-term, meaningful collaborations
  • supporting innovative pilots to find what works, share lessons and support the growth of effective approaches

3 goals for a new relationship between research and innovation and society

To break down the barriers between research and innovation and society we need to do 3 things.

1. Build a sense of shared endeavour by making research and innovation relevant and accessible to all

Research and innovation are part of the fabric of everyday life: in the places we live, the transport we use, the food we eat and the clothes we wear. We want everyone to feel part of a shared research and innovation endeavour – with opportunities to participate, engage, challenge and enjoy.

To ensure that research and innovation are part of a shared culture in the UK, UKRI will:

  • commission regular insight into public attitudes and behaviours and use this information to influence our programmes and strategies
  • work with museums, galleries and science centres to support new audiences to engage with and be inspired by research and innovation
  • support researchers and innovators to engage widely through festivals, schools engagement and collaborative research, with a focus on sustained engagement over one-off interactions

2. Make sure the benefits of research and innovation are shared widely by supporting collaboration and valuing diverse forms of knowledge

Generating knowledge in partnership with the public can improve research and innovation by making it more relevant and more useful. It improves policy, making sure that a diverse range of voices are listened to and acted on. It can also lead to many benefits for the wider public, from the development of skills to opportunities to address issues that matter to them.

To support these collaborations, we will:

  • invest in support infrastructures, including community research networks, to build capacity for meaningful collaborations between researchers, innovators and communities
  • fund pilots that enable community groups to be recognised as knowledge producers, encouraging a shift in the ways in which knowledge is valued and supported
  • test new approaches to support early conversations with the public about research and innovation priorities
  • work with the research and innovation community to ensure that public involvement in priority setting is a standard part of decision-making processes and that public engagement can be funded as an integral part of research and innovation grants
  • help all disciplines and sectors learn from each other – through events, forums and research – including from humanities, social sciences, medicine and innovative businesses, where engagement is regularly embedded in the design and delivery of research and innovation

3. Create opportunities for all by inspiring and engaging the next generation

Young people are our future decision-makers and the researchers and innovators of tomorrow. By engaging with research and innovation, young people can access a wide range of career opportunities, develop their skills and explore the relevance of research and innovation for their lives.

To inspire and engage the next generation, we will:

  • create opportunities for young people to engage with and influence the research and innovation that we fund, focusing our efforts on young people who lack opportunities to participate in and contribute to activities that are relevant to them
  • review and develop key national programmes that support researchers and innovators to inspire and engage with young people
  • ensure that young people are included in decision-making processes around UKRI’s youth engagement work

Case studies

There are examples of public engagement across UKRI’s 9 councils.

Digitising co-creation for urban planning

PlaceBuilder is a digital service, created by The Future Fox, to enable local communities to influence planning decisions. The Future Fox is a UK-owned company, backed by Innovate UK, and has been selected as one of the highest quality public purpose technology startups in the world by industry experts Stateup21.

Their mission is to accelerate the development of smart, sustainable and people-focused places, and they do this by making it easy for anyone to influence planning decisions.

Adolescence, mental health and the developing mind

The AHRC, ESRC and MRC’s ‘Adolescence, mental health and the developing mind’ programme is investing £35 million to examine how mental health problems emerge in young people and interventions to promote positive mental health and wellbeing.

As part of the programme, a Young People’s Advisory Group has been set up to ensure the research addresses the needs of people most affected by these issues. The group informs programme governance and co-facilitates training for researchers applying for funding.

Young people have also been involved in reviewing proposals and sitting on funding panels alongside other experts.

Administrative Data Research UK

Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) is an ESRC-funded programme that is harnessing the power of administrative data for policy-relevant research that aims to improve people’s lives.

All 4 of the ADR UK national partnerships have, or have in development, a public panel designed to ensure ADR UK remains a trustworthy programme of work. To broaden its engagement with the general public, ADR UK partnered with the Office for Statistics Regulation to launch a UK-wide public dialogue to explore public perceptions of use of data and statistics for ‘public good’.

The findings will inform how to maximise public benefit of data research and statistics above and beyond the legal framework for data sharing and use.

Being Human Festival

Being Human is the UK’s national festival of the humanities. A celebration of humanities research through public engagement, it is led by the School of Advanced Study. The festival works in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy to support humanities public engagement across the UK.

The festival helps researchers in the humanities – from literature and history, languages and philosophy, art history and classics, and more – to produce enjoyable events for public audiences that emphasise working with local communities to share ideas for mutual benefit.

Citizen science programme

Active participation in research can improve its quality, make it more relevant to society and have significant benefits for those who participate. In 2021, UKRI invested £1.46 million in 5 citizen science projects that bring the public into the heart of the research process.

Members of the public conduct research, working with researchers, to identify the questions they want to ask and design the best approaches to explore them. The 3-year programme is currently underway and an evaluation will inform how UKRI can further support and embed participation by the public and communities within research and innovation.

Citizen Science for Food Standards Challenges

UKRI partnered with the Food Standards Agency to fund projects that are using citizen science research methods to explore food standards challenges. Supported by BBSRC and ESRC, the funding opportunity aims to enable the spread of citizen science methods in the academic community and expand the range of people from outside of academia involved in food research.

The total investment of £190,000 is supporting 6 projects where the public will explore food hypersensitivities and allergies, foodborne bacteria and baby formula safety.

Wonder Initiative

STFC funds and runs world-class research and facilities with a wide-ranging workforce from space scientists to physicists, engineers, project managers and technicians. The Wonder Initiative began in 2018 and is a long-term commitment to improve STFC’s engagement with communities from the 40% most deprived areas of the UK, particularly young people aged 8 to 14, their families, carers and teachers.

Wonder acts across STFC’s engagement programme of public engagement grants, strategic partnerships with Association of Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) and The Reading Agency and the National Laboratories Public Engagement programme. Wonder prioritises working with communities to develop inspirational engagement activities drawing on STFC science.

Evaluation findings show the proportion of Wonder participants from the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities has increased to above 40% for 2019 (49%) and 2020 (43%), and outcomes for Wonder audiences (2018-20) are positive.

EPSRC public engagement champions

EPSRC is supporting 4 engineering champions and 5 information and communications technology (ICT) champions to inspire and engage the public and attract people to STEM careers.

The public engagement champions are leading a variety of innovative public engagement activities, with a particular focus on engaging more members of underrepresented groups with research. Activities range from developing podcasts and writing children’s storybooks to engaging with schools and community groups.

Healthy environments, diverse perspectives

Involving the public in decisions about projects that are prioritised and funded can result in research that is more relevant and useful to people’s lives.

In 2021, UKRI and NERC ran an innovative online public dialogue to inform decisions about the future of NERC’s healthy environment programme. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, workshops were delivered using a combination of digital and creative methods such as VR and storytelling.

NERC will use insights from the project to inform decisions about which research topics to support in the future, and findings have already informed a recent funding opportunity on the role of environmental quality in providing benefits to human health.

New Generation Thinkers: redefining our understanding of history, literature and art

This pioneering partnership between the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and BBC Radio 3 has nurtured and grown the next generation of leading arts and humanities researchers for over 10 years, bringing their exciting discoveries and insights to a public audience.

Place-based Climate Action Network

The ESRC-supported Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) translates climate policy into ‘on the ground’ action in communities.

In 2020, it launched climate commissions in Edinburgh and Belfast, and supported the creation of others in York, Essex and Croydon. These city-wide partnerships:

  • connect policymakers, researchers and citizens
  • track progress towards local climate targets
  • publish papers on contentious issues to support balanced debate

PCAN is demonstrating a model for other places to establish their own commissions to provide independent guidance for city councils with ambitious climate commitments.


Led and funded by UKRI, the Sciencewise programme provides assistance to policy makers to carry out public dialogue, a two-way conversation with members of the public, to improve decision-making on science and technology issues.

Last year Sciencewise dialogues informed the work of the Cabinet Office on the ethical use of location data, provided a major input into the UK’s National Food Strategy and informed guidance on the confidential use of health and care information published by the National Data Guardian.

Young Innovators Awards

A survey by Innovate UK in 2021 found that many young people think their age is a barrier to business success.

The Young Innovator’s Awards gave 18 to 30-year-olds one-on-one coaching, an allowance to cover living costs and a small grant to turn ground-breaking ideas into a reality. In 2021, successful applications included a wide range of ideas to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges, including a low-cost medical emergency device and clothing designed for children and teenagers with disabilities.

Winners came from diverse backgrounds, with nearly a third from ethnic minority groups and 17% identifying as disabled.


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