You’ve heard it before:
…The public have the right (and duty, some may say) to engage with science and medicine.
…Public engagement gives your work real-world context and a fresh perspective on what you do.
…If you are applying for funding, get ready to demonstrate your involvement with the public.
The many reasons why you should engage with the public have been listed and discussed plenty of times, so you already know what it’s about. You know it’s essential; you know it’s not just about communicating science, but about having a conversation; you know your audience has a voice and an active role to play – they’re not just spectators.
However, finding the time to dedicate to public engagement is no easy endeavour – even less so considering your already crammed schedule. Besides, interacting with school children and families at a science festival is not everybody’s cup of tea, and the risk of being forced into it can make your public engagement efforts become a ‘tick-box activity’.
But here’s the good news – public engagement comes in many more shapes than you may think. There’s a plethora of sometimes quirky, always wonderful initiatives out there to exemplify that engagement can take fascinating formats.
Even better news for those with overloaded schedules – sometimes it may be more effective to reach your audience remotely, which may allow more flexibility and make your life a little easier! In many cases your target audience won’t be the science fair type, after all, and picking the right medium to engage them is tightly related to the kind of audience they are. Ask yourself – how old are they? Where do they hang out, on- and off-line? What are their interests and motivations? What does their day-to-day life look like? Consideration of these factors is crucial before you embark on any public engagement journey!
Without further ado, here is a list of formats that showcase the many faces of public engagement…
Let your imagination be sparked!
- At schools, colleges, community groups or science / family festivals. A well-known public engagement format for science and medicine, and no wonder – this can be a most gratifying way to participate. Contrary to what some think, people do want to know about your work and can be extremely engaged – you just need to find a way to tap into the curiosity of your particular audience.. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all. You could design an activity or inspire a crowd just by talking about your own journey in STEM and medicine.
- At a music festival, your local mall, the pub or other unlikely places. By taking your activity to a place where people would not expect you can reach very different audiences, and can add an extra layer of fun to public engagement. Guerrilla Science managed to engage festival-goers at Glastonbury by challenging them to prove themselves smarter than a rat.
- At your own workplace. Instead of taking your experience and activities elsewhere, you could invite people to take part in an immersive experience at your institution. Organise a one-off careers event or even start a sustained engagement scheme between your institution and a selection of people. This gives them a chance to see what’s going on behind the scenes and have a feel of the day-to-day life of doctors, nurses or scientists.
- Through public dialogue. As defined by the Research Council UK, public dialogue is a deliberative participatory engagement where the outcomes are used to inform decision-making. An example of this may be organising a focus group with patients in order to decide what the next step of your research should be. These initiatives can go really far –patients can even become the researchers!
- Through broadcast media. Whether it’s an appearance on a TV, radio show or a podcast, this can be an effective way to reach out to the public. Your audience can participate by phone or social media, or there could be an associated event to enable them to have their say. Need tips on how to do TV or to work with journalists effectively? The Society can support you and point you in the right direction for training and useful resources.
- Through written word. If you are a keen writer and enjoy the creativeness of the process you can apply those skills to engage your audience by telling them about your work. Write a blog or become a contributor for a website or magazine and spark a conversation with and amongst your readers.
- By becoming a media ambassador for the Society. Regardless of the medium, collaboration between the worlds of science and journalism enables the responsible and clear reporting of science in the news.
- Through Social Media. ‘Ask me anything’ sessions or Twitter takeovers are a great conversation-based way to engage with people – you just need access to the internet and a Reddit or Twitter account to get going!
- Through art. Art and science aren’t opposites – they are both driven by curiosity, require creativity and both aim to gain a better understanding of the world. Collaborations between science and the arts range from films, theatre and exhibitions to dance, storytelling, comics and stand-up comedy.
- Creating a resource. If you have the creative drive and the crafting skills but define yourself as a ‘behind the scenes’ sort of person, why not creating materials or activities for other people to use? Board games, mobile apps, activities for science festivals – you name it!
- Through citizen science. Let people become your co-researchers to achieve common research goals, like collecting information on viral epidemiology, self-soothing, protein folding or mapping the human brain.
Public engagement isn’t easy, but that doesn’t make it dreadful, inconvenient or disruptive. Rather, your challenge lies in approaching it creatively. If you have a passion for what you do, there will be a way to channel it into a public engagement activity – you just need to find the right fit for you and your public!
Aida de Heras, Society for Endocrinology Communications Executive.