Public involvement is a process that involves people with research, not as subjects or participants of that work, but as partners who work with researchers to plan, manage and carry out research. Involving the public is something that we’re seeing more and more of; often grant applications have a designated section for public involvement and if you don’t plan to involve members of the public in your work, you risk not getting funding at all.
I think most researchers agree that the idea of public involvement is a good thing; if we’re spending public money to conduct our research then it’s generally a good idea to have someone representing the public to critique our work, help develop our plans and improve it, ultimately ensuring that the work we do is of importance to the public.
In my experience, public engagement is viewed very differently. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement say:
Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listing, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.
To some people it’s just another thing on their to-do lists, often the first thing that gets ditched when they’re busy with other work. Early career researchers like me are busy trying to get to grips with this new world of research, learning all the time and working to build skills quickly so that we can carry out our research work within the timescales of our funding.
It’s widely accepted that public involvement is good, but why should early career researchers be making the time to get involved with public engagement?
Engaging with a non-specialist audience forces you out of your comfort zone – it pushes you and helps you to understand your own research better than you have done before. You’re suddenly out of the relative comfort of your office, you’re no longer surrounded by colleagues who speak your scientific language, and you need to explain the work you do in such a way that anyone else can understand it. Your communication skills improve quickly, and diversely depending on who you’re interacting with. From writing online blogs like this one, to doing public talks or even taking part in events aimed at families like Explorathon, you’ll learn new skills with each project you work on.
When you’re working on one project (in my case my PhD) for a long time, it becomes the only thing you think of (I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down notes after I’ve had some sort of weird mid-dream brainwave…). You focus on your own work, sometimes thinking and re-thinking about problems and potential solutions for days at a time. Taking a step back to explain your work to others and engage in conversations about it, can be just the thing you need to provide new perspectives and ways to tackle problems.
It’s really good fun
In what other job can you spend time doing the research you love one day, and then pitching up outside a shopping centre to do a clinical trial involving chocolate the next?! Spending time engaging with the public will not only provide you with questions you never thought you’d answer as part of conversations you never thought you’d have. It’ll help you build close bonds with your team, go back to your normal working day re-enthused, and it’ll leave you with a big smile on your face at the end of the day too.
I don’t have much experience with public engagement yet, the only face to face activity I’ve done so far was through Explorathon. The ‘Explorachoc’ chocolate trial that I was involved with along with other staff from the Health Services Research Unit was really great first foray into the world of public engagement, and I’m looking forward to getting involved with more engagement activities over the remainder of my PhD and beyond.