Jamie, Public Engagement Officer at the University of Glasgow and former scientist, gave an entertaining talk on this topic at the university yesterday. Here are some of his key points, sadly expressed more dully than they were by him:
- Remember that people are not as interested in your research as you are. Jamie practised his communication skills at the Glasgow Science Centre and found that people will walk away if you don’t interest them. Find an angle which will appeal to your audience. Jamie was researching materials for energy harvesting but found it was easier to start a conversation on related topics which people could relate to such as using body heat to power a mobile phone.
- Being able and willing to talk can bring opportunities. The Science Council named him as one of the top hundred scientists – an accolade he insists he didn’t deserve but came through being well known. Keep a record of what you have done so that you have evidence of your achievements.
- Make it a mutually beneficial experience. Think what you would like to gain, for example, evidence for your research or experience in presenting. Also think what attendees might like to gain. For example, if they are members of the public at a museum they may want to be entertained. If they are asylum seekers they may want to feel they are achieving a purpose and you could consider going back to explain outcomes to them.
- Consider costs of engagement when applying for funding. There are opportunities to apply for money for outreach, public engagement or for training for your team. Research Councils UK (RCUK) now encourage this as part of ‘Pathway to Impact’ statements’. You should ensure you cost all your public engagement and outreach activities within this section of the grant application: they will consider costs for travel, evaluation, presenters and staff.
- Impact means causing a change. Jamie felt that it can be difficult to understand REF type impact and how you can generate impact from public engagement activities. Some people think that it means things like making a TV programme, but demonstrating the impact or change from this is difficult to measure. Try to ensure that your engagement has some benefit– it could be interest from the public, new skills for the researcher, children inspired to go to university etc. This could lead to REF type impact though proving change is not easy.
- Know your starting point and measure! It is difficult to measure the impact of public engagement. If you are going to demonstrate a change you need to keep a baseline of how things were when you started. Try to record everything you can. Count the number of people you speak to and the time you spend with them. You could ask questions and record the answers, ask people for a show of hands or use electronic voting to get feedback. If you speak to someone in depth keep a transcript.
- Make any measurement relevant to your aims – avoid long questionnaires with irrelevant questions about catering etc. Questions such as “Did you know about this before” can give evidence of change. Think of fun ways to capture the information you want. Jamie gave examples he has seen such as voting with ping pong balls, hitting shuttle cocks into an umbrella to give the correct answer, this was used to find out how long people take to get to work, and a graffiti wall filled with post it notes which looked like a work of art.
- Engagement doesn’t have to be public speaking. There are many ways to engage with the public, presenting at festivals, hosting events, activities or social media being one of the easiest mediums with the widest reach. Jamie in his entertaining style said he could think of many academics he might not want to put in front of an audience of children! He produced an online periodic table showing the countries where elements were discovered which produced a great deal of interest. Blogging is another way of presenting your research to a wider audience or you could produce an accessible summary of your research on a web page. It also doesn’t have to be the general public. There may be sensitive topics such as mental health where you could engage with charities for mutual benefit.
My only regret about the talk was that he didn’t give us a demonstration of his “science of salsa” dance!”