Thursday, March 08, 2012

On public engagement (Part I)

Last week I was privileged to be invited to speak to participants in the University of Sheffield's Crucible programme. The idea is to create "outward facing researchers", who are capable of thinking and working in an inter-disciplinary fashion, exchanging knowledge and reaching out to wider society. I was asked to talk to them about public engagement, so here's a summary of my presentation (split into a number of parts).

The notion of "the good, the bad and the ugly" is often used as a device with which to frame a discussion. I thought I'd use it, but with a minor modification, as I couldn't really think of any truly ugly experiences of public engagement.

We first need to define what we mean by "public engagement". I was quite happy to go with the National Co-ordinating Cente for Public Engagement definition:

The phrases to emphasise here are "connect and share their work", "mutual benefit", "sharing knowledge, expertise and skills", "trust, understanding and collaboration", and the inevitable "impact".

In my view, what public engagement is emphatically not about is "selling" an institution or a particular piece of work.
People taking a more positive view of an institution should be a beneficial side-effect of effective public engagement, rather than an end in itself. In my experience, people know when they are being sold to, and it can often be counter-productive. Good, honest attempts to truly engage will always leave people with a favourable impression, whereas sales tactics generally give off a whiff of desperation and tackiness.

I then invoked my utterly unscientific idea of the "axes of involvement" to categorise different types of public engagement (with which I've been personally involved. On the x-axis we have the level of "audience" participation (running from "passive" to "actively involved in delivering the product", and on the y-axis we have audience numbers (on a log scale, running from single individuals to thousands of people).

On the left-hand side we have activities such as my book Genesis Machines, which was read by thousands of people (honest!), but involved a very low level of "participation" (a few people emailed me after reading the book, but there was no real interaction involved). On this side we also have our exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry; again, seen by potentially thousands of visitors, but which involves them passively watching a video interview.

To the right we have more participative activities, such as DIYbio Manchester, or Manchester Methods (see the video below):

Both of these activities, by their very nature, might involve handfuls of individuals (up to maybe 50 or 60), but they're a lot more hands on in terms of their participation.

I therefore decided to call projects to the left "broadcasting" activities (lots of communication, not much feedback, large numbers), and those to the right "collaboration" activities (lots of participation, lots of feedback, smaller numbers). I also identified four different activity types: Writing, Presenting, Teaching and Working.

Writing is often the most obvious route into public engagement. It was certainly mine; my first popular science book was published in 2006, as a direct result of my entering the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in 1999. I didn't win, but I was shortlisted (and was delighted to learn that the panel that year included Douglas Adams), and the winner was the acclaimed Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus. Afterwards, Toby Mundy, who was publishing the winner, contacted me to discuss the possibility of my working up my synopsis into a full book, which would appear some years later. This led, in turn, to appearances at the ICA, turns at both Edinburgh Science and Book Festivals, newspaper features, appearances on Radio 4, and so on (I was greatly helped in all of this by having an excellent publicist in Annabel Huxley).

Message 1 is therefore Write, Write, Write!. Accessible articles can really open up your field to outsiders; you can either post them on your blog (where they form a useful ready-made archive of soundbites for interested journalists), or enter them into competitions. Leading writer Ed Yong has described how winning the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize kick-started his own career, and the Guardian has a large list of tips for successful writing.

Next time: Presenting.

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