What's the best kind of public engagement?
Next week, I'll be delivering a talk in Oxford about public engagement into research (PER), specifically how to make PER more engaging through song. The thinking and research that I have been doing have led me to really hone in what is meant by PER and so this blog is relevant for any researchers who are, or are thinking about getting into PER and thinking about how to maximise engagement opportunities. According to a report conducted by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, the vast majority of PER involves dissemination, whether through TV, blogs, books, articles, etc. It happens at the end of a research programme to tell the world about the findings. This is undoubtedly important since the public often fund the researcher's work and it is important that they understand the outcomes. In many cases, research findings are important for the health and well-being of the public and sometimes research results in stuff that's just so darn interesting that it would be wrong not to let the public know. But how much do the researchers get back from this process and how engaged are the public going to be with just dissemination? Not very much is the most probable answer.
Working this way follows a deficit model of participation in which the public are seen as having a deficit of knowledge and the expert's role is to overcome that deficit by providing the information they so desperately need (even if they don't know they need it). Whether in education or engagement, deficit models, I would argue, are deficient themselves. They work in only one direction, and the level of interaction is low. It is perhaps more accurate to describe this as outreach rather than engagement. Engagement to me suggests something more dynamic and interactive. When couples get engaged it is not a one way thing but a mutual agreement between to partners who are emotionally invested. When you engage in battle, at least two parties are active in that exchange. The point here is that engagement can mean that both parties are invested into the exchange and as a result, the exchange becomes more than the sum of its parts.
In order to turn PER into genuine engagement it helps to adopt an asset model of participation. Rather than seeing the public as passive recipients of knowledge, researchers can acknowledge that the public have skills, knowledge and expertise that can help their research, the dissemination of their research, or the level of engagement into their research findings. If the research in question is intended to help the public in some way, say medical research, the public are experts on how they would use the research findings. All too often researchers spend months on a research project only to find that the people they wished to help had no interest. By engaging the public earlier and using their experience and expertise this can be avoided. PER becomes a great way to get out of the ivory towers and discover whether the research is actually what people need or want.
Another benefit of adopting an asset model, is that it gets researchers to meet the public where they are, with the things that already interest them and the arts are a great way to exploit this. Almost everybody likes to engage in the arts in some form or another. This is not necessarily true of the niche research interests of academics. Rather than expecting someone to be interested in a particular area of atomic physics, it much easier to get someone to be interested in developing artistic representations of atomic physics as there are far more people who enjoy drawing than physics. The advantage of this is that rather than listening or reading for ten minutes, and then forgetting the interaction ten minutes later, participants spend time thinking about these ideas, and come away with something they have made, which they may keep and treasure. They have actually engaged, and possibly had an emotional response to something that would otherwise be quite dry for them. The added bonus is that the researcher has direct feedback on how their research affects the public. They know which parts of their explanations resonate the most and have probably had a more meaningful human connection. In fact, the more that researchers can get the public to bring to these interactions, the more meaningful, long-lasting and beneficial they become.
I'll be employing this thinking in all PER projects that I'm asked to collaborate on from now on. My latest project is a lovely example, devised with Michaela Livingstone-Banks from the Maths, Physics and Life Sciences Public Engagement team at Oxford University. We have called it Sing Song Physics and my favourite moment from this project is having set up in a shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon, where Neil Bowles, a planetary scientist, explained to passers by how asteroids might form, and explained his mission to send an unmanned spacecraft to the asteroid Bennu to find out. Parents and children from all manner of backgrounds were only too happy to listen, knowing that they would get to help write a song about what they had found. The picture at the top of this blog is the 12 or so verses they wrote with me. Neil got some excellent feedback from these verses on what excites a young mind about his work, he got to practice describing his work to a lay audience of a variety of ages, the kids have gone away feeling like they have contributed something to the communication of his work, the songwriting consolidated the things they learned,, the experience gave them a positive experience of a scientist, and they were able to see that engaging with science can be creative and fun. The benefits far outweigh anything that could be achieved through a deficit model. Everyone has deficits, everyone has assets, researchers and public included.. By considering these and designing engagement opportunities around them, PER can become a meaningful human interaction of benefit to everyone involved. I certainly had a great day!