The Science of Public Engagement
Significant effort, and funding, now goes toward public engagement activities, yet robust evaluation remains difficult. Mark Bowler and his colleagues succeeded – and even published a peer-reviewed scientific paper from the results.
There was a satisfying ripple of activity on the release of our latest paper, and a sense of relief on our part that our central messages had clearly not been lost on the active science communicators who soon began to tweet about it.
On the face of it there is nothing particularly new about what we had done – we used some standard behavioural methods to measure visitor interest in the University of St. Andrews’ primate behaviour research centre, ‘Living Links’ in Edinburgh Zoo. What is new was summed up nicely by science writer Ed Yong:
Ed alluded to two weighty points in this little tweet. The first we also emphasise in our paper; research institutions and funding bodies are increasingly requiring researchers to engage with the public about their research, and increasing numbers of researchers are motivated to do so. Yet adequate evaluations of such efforts remain rare. Considerable chunks of research funding are being directed towards these efforts – over £3 million per year from the Wellcome Trust alone – but while assessment of engagement is increasingly a requirement for some funders, it is still far from the norm.
Ed’s second point was that achieving evaluation rigorous enough for publication in a regular science journal is pretty novel. It is, and we think this is actually a very important move. Like anything in science, peer-reviewed publication is a mechanism by which university public engagement can evolve and improve.
We see a number of significant advantages to publishing assessments of public engagement activities in science journals. Publication provides a platform for researchers to demonstrate what they are doing, and the impact it has, more widely and conclusively. At present, too much of this work goes unrecognised in universities and the scientific community at large. Evaluation is also often quite informal.
By contrast, the peer review process guards against researchers exaggerating the success of their engagement efforts, and the knowledge that assessment will be published keeps practitioners motivated. What better incentive for researchers to put time and resources into assessing their public engagement activities than the carrot of a real publication, one of the staple measures by which researchers and institutions are judged? Publication might not be in a journal within one’s main field of interest, but there are opportunities here for collaborations and student projects.
It’s perhaps over egging our efforts to say we’re pioneering a new research niche here, but we do think it’s one that could result in better value for those millions of pounds, Euros and dollars of public and charitable funds now being satisfyingly directed towards public engagement. It’s time for public engagement to get better recognised as an integral part of science.
- Bowler, M., Buchanan-Smith, H., & Whiten, A. (2012). Assessing Public Engagement with Science in a University Primate Research Centre in a National Zoo PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034505
Dr Mark Bowler, University of St. Andrews
This research was supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award to Prof Andy Whiten.