Why Engage? Reflections and tips on engaging the public with research

Engaging relevant communities in the research process can have a multitude of benefits explain Dr Sam Illingworth (The University of Western Australia) and Dr Jasjit Singh (University of Leeds), who are both currently compiling a toolkit to empower researchers to do just this. Read on to find out more about their top tips.

At the most recent ‘Meet the AHRC’ event in Manchester, the two of us were asked to talk on a panel about how and why we engage the public with our research, and why other academic researchers should consider doing the same. This short blog post is a result of this panel discussion, and the subsequent conversations that the two of us have had in relation to engaging the public with (and in) our research.

The first thing to note is that there is not a singular ‘general public’, there are in fact a multitude of publics, each with their own needs, experiences, beliefs, and expectations. In working with ‘the public’, it is therefore vital that you consider which public you are actually interested in working with, and also why you want to engage with them in the first instance. Taking our own research for example, working with Sikh communities to understand their issues regarding religious and cultural transmission (Jasjit), requires a different approach to working with people living with mental health needs to address their attitudes towards environmental change (Sam).

However, in both instances it is necessary to listen to what these communities really think and want to learn about a particular topic, rather than assuming that everything you have read / researched can be applied here. Working with trusted members in these communities (e.g. a community nurse) or with trusted community organisations is a powerful way to prompt two-way dialogue, as doing so allows you to discuss any potential opportunities for, or barriers to, engagement.

When determining which publics to engage with, try to think beyond previously-engaged individuals and audiences. As researchers we should be breaking out of these echo chambers. Instead, we should be enabling more effective communication with publics that have a diverse range of demographic, socio-structural, and value-based characteristics. Working with these underserved and under-heard communities presents barriers and challenges, but it also creates many opportunities for both parties.

However, before determining which audience you want to work with, you should really be asking yourself why you want to engage with them in the first instance. What is the purpose of your public engagement? Is it to introduce your research to a new audience, in order to justify to yourself / your institute / your funding body that what you are doing is relevant to society? Or is it because you want to work with that audience in identifying a societal need to their community that you can co-create a solution to? When we talk about the ‘impact’ of our research, so much of this is retrofitted to what we think is valuable to society, rather than working with society to first determine what research would actually be of value.

Building trust

Indeed, developing research questions in collaboration with external partners can lead to better questions and more meaningful research. As academics and researchers, we often work with a variety of publics and external partners, including media and policymakers, and are therefore in privileged positions to bring these different types of audiences and organisations together. All this requires building trust which necessitates a significant investment of time and energy in maintaining and managing relationships, which is both challenging and rewarding.

To develop trust, it is important to start conversations early and to manage expectations from the start. Academic research often works on longer timescales than community groups are used to, so results may not be as quickly forthcoming as some public audiences might expect. Managing expectations about funding is also important, as there are no guarantees, in which case it is also worth discussing this upfront and thinking about backup options.

Working with various publics, listening to their needs, and using this to help drive forward our research has been an extremely humbling, rewarding, and at times, challenging experience. We appreciate that this approach might not be for everyone, but we urge you to at least consider involving a suitable public at an earlier stage in the research process, rather than simply as the audience for a public lecture in which you discuss how your findings will impact their community. We also believe that funding bodies such as the AHRC have a vital role to play in driving forward this approach to public engagement.

Have your say

We are currently working with the AHRC to compile a toolkit designed to help arts and humanities researchers learn more about how to better engage communities with their research. We would love to hear from you about what you think should be included and what you would find most beneficial. Please spare a few minutes by sharing your thoughts and suggestions. The survey will close on 29 May 2020.

Top 5 Tips for Meaningful Community Engagement

  1. Start conversations early – develop research questions together.
  2. Manage expectations – particularly around timescales and funding.
  3. Recognise different types of knowledge – expertise exists in various forms, so be open to changing your research plans once you start engaging.
  4. Make those ivory towers work for everyone – look for opportunities to use your position and privilege to add value and bring different types of partners together.
  5. Never assume – always make sure that your collaborators know exactly what they are committing to, and that informed consent has been obtained.

About the Authors

Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Western Australia. Sam was formerly at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research involved using poetry and games to engender dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samillingworth, and  find out more about his research by visiting his website: www.samillingworth.com

Dr Jasjit Singh is a Research Fellow in Religious and Cultural Transmission based at the University of Leeds. His research examines issues of religious identity, representation and religious and cultural transmission among Sikhs in diaspora. You can follow Dr Singh on Twitter @DrJasjitSingh and find out more about Jasjit and his research by visiting his website: www.drjasjitsingh.com

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