Toggle navigationOpen menu
Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Public engagement

In June 2021 the Researcher Development and Research Culture team at the University of Exeter ran events as part of a new series funded by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, exploring the key components of Public Engagement:

  • An Introduction Public Engagement and Evaluation for Engagement
  • Creative Engagement Methods
  • Co-production in Research
  • Impactful Public Engagement with Research

The four sessions were led by public engagement experts from across the University and showcased a range of disciplines, activities, and approaches including multi-disciplinary and co-produced public engagement case studies. A variety of career researchers attended, from those getting started to those looking to develop new projects and hone their expertise.

The term public engagement can be used to describe how researchers share their work and interact with wider groups and society. It can mean different things to different people but the focus is creating a dialogue between researchers, their work, and public groups.

“Public engagement describes the myriad 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 listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.” – National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) 

There may be many different reasons why researchers engage with public engagement. These include:

  • wanting to share what you do
  • responding to societal needs and requests
  • changing attitudes and behaviours
  • demystifying research and researchers

Additionally, some researchers engage with what is called co-produced research in which a two-way dialogue is established:

  • creating knowledge together
  • applying knowledge together 
  • learning from others

The ‘public’ is not a homogenous group; there are different types of publics, from professionals and practitioners to school pupils. When planning public engagement activities you need to think about your specific target audience and they should be at the forefront of your planning. This graphic from the NCCPE is a great example of the types of public you may wish to engage in your activities. 

There are several different models and frameworks to help with creating public engagement activities. Here are the two most common.

NCCPE Triangle

The NCCPE triangle shows that there are are three main purposes of engagement:

  • Informing: to inspire, inform, change, educate, build capacity and involvement of influence decisions of others e.g. science festivals.
  • Consulting: to use the views, skills, experience, knowledge of others to inspire, inform, change, educate or build your own capacity or decisions e.g. surveys.
  • Collaborating: to collaborate, consider, create, or decide something together e.g. consensus building. 

Wellcome Onion

The Onion model created by the Wellcome trust shows how different public engagement activities lend themselves to different types of engagement, from broadcasting to co-produced activity. If you develop your own plans you may wish to consider where your planned activities. The University of Oxford have a transcript of the public engagement onion which can be accessed here. 

Here are some Top Tips from our sessions to help guide you:

  • Make sure to have an ‘elevator pitch’. Prepare a few sentences to describe your research in jargon-free language for a non-specialist audience. Having this ready to go is a good foundation for starting your public engagement journey.
  • Ask around, find out what projects already exist, and talk to those already involved. There are often meaningful funded opportunities for early career researchers to start their own projects or get involved in existing ones. Learning about what others are doing can be a source of inspiration and advice; there may be existing projects you can get involved in.
  • Focus on your audience. The ‘public’ is not a homogenous group; there are different types of publics. Think about what group you specifically want to target, what you already know about them, why they might interested in your research and how that fits in a broader context. Your sessions and plans should be aimed at this group. This is key to developing meaningful engagement.
  • Think about your motivations. Why you want to get involved in public engagement, what you hope to get out of it? You may even focus on working with a group that can help you with your work and focus on creating co-produced research creating a clear two-way dialogue with your target group. Using Logic Models may help with this as you develop your plan.
  • Think about the logistics, not just costs, locations but evaluate how much of your time you can commit to a project. How much time is involved in preparation and development, delivering content and hosting events, and then time spent on post-production like editing and impact evaluation?
  • How are you going to evaluate the impacts of your activities? Think about what evidence you might need and how you are going to store and analyse any data, especially if this is required by your funder. Remember to check if you need ethics approval!

Co-produced research focuses on creating two-way dialogues between researchers and target non-academic groups. This recognises and values the expertise, skills and knowledge of non-academics enabling meaningful interaction with other partners, the co-creation of research questions, and shared delivery of research. Partners may include user communities; members of the public; practitioners; patients; private, voluntary sector or public organisations.

The National Institute of Health Research gives the following definition:

“Co-producing a research project is an approach in which researchers, practitioners and the public work together, sharing power and responsibility from the start to the end of the project, including the generation of knowledge.”

Co-produced, engaged, research should seek to:

  • influence policy and practice 
  • build on a culture of reciprocity 
  • respect different expertise and diverse values 
  • arise from and respond to the needs of diverse partners 
  • have outcomes that are beneficial (although not necessarily the same) for all partners 
  • be of the highest ethical standards 
  • be sensitive to partners’ wishes for privacy and confidentiality 
  • learn from those with other types of experience, including lived experiences

The Dynamics of Engaged Research

There are three main phases in the engaged research cycle:

  • Engaging Phase: Creating the conditions for community engagement
  • Delivery Phase: Developing and delivering the project
  • Follow On Phase: Working towards agreed process or outcome

There is no one way to co-produce research and the project participants, direction, and outcomes will emerge as the activities progress and you spend more time working with your stakeholders. However, these phases may help guide you when planning your project outline.

Your own Co-Produced Research

If you are planning your own co-produced research, here are some questions to consider:

  • Motivations: What draws you towards considering an engaged research approach? What benefit will engaged research bring to your research?
  • Stakeholders: Do you have existing contacts? Who would you ideally want to partner with? Talk to your colleagues, who have they worked with?
  • Logistics: When are you in the research process? What is feasible? What processes, structure, governance do you need to include in your research? Advisory group, co-researchers, place-based working etc.
  • Impacts: How will you know you’ve been successful? 

It’s important to consider our research and engagement activities and partnerships in that context of the potential academic and wider societal/economic impacts. This quick guide will walk us through some of the key definitions and concepts.

How do we define impact?

UKRI give the following definitions:

Academic impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to academic advances, including shifting understanding and advancing scientific method, theory and application across and within disciplines.
Economic and societal impact
is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes
to society and the economy.… Impact embraces all the diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit individuals, organisations, and/or nations ”

The Research Excellence Framework defines impact as

an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.


Why does it matter if our activity is impactful?

  • To create opportunities to develop skills, enhance research, co-produce research questions and methodologies.
  • To evidence the benefits and impact, to show how are making a difference and demonstrate the benefit to our public(s), society, and/or the economy.
  • To be accountable; to demonstrate to funders (e.g. government(s), charities etc.), stakeholders and the public the benefits and value of research, and what public money is being spent on which helps funders safeguard funding for research.
  • To inform funding decisions by articulating the potential socioeconomic benefit of research and that you have considered what the return on their investment will be.
  • To help us plan and manage our engagement activities, to assess the effectiveness of our approach, and reflect so we learn from our experience and improve practice.

 Why is evaluating the impact of our research important?

There are several people to consider when evaluating the impact of your research: yourself, your academic institution, participants, partner organisations, and beneficiaries. Each of these will have different needs, here are some you may wish to consider:

  • To complete end of grant or annual reports, and reporting systems compliance
  • To demonstrate your achievements in future applications/projects and for career progression
  • To build case studies about your engaged research and the impact it has had
  • To maintain momentum and spirit of collaboration by updating on activities

To suport you in thinking about public engagement with your own research, we have developed three worksheets you can download and complete:

Megan Maunder is a PGR in the Space Weather and Plasmas Group in the Mathematics Department. Her research focuses on Multi-Spacecraft Investigations of Coronal Mass Ejections and is funded by STFC.

Megan is a strong believer in engaging the public(s) in the scientific process and is passionate about creating more inclusive and accessible environments within academia.

You can find out more about her research and public engagement work on her Twitter: @Megan_Maunder.

IconWe value your feedback, and would appreciate it if you could take 2 minutes to give us some feedback on this resource