'You don't have to do public engagement that's all jazz hands and "look at the joy of my research"': QMUL's Kimberley Freeman on the many faces of public engagement.
When I first entered the world of research communications a few years back, having spent the previous decade making TV documentaries, the term 'public engagement' didn't mean much to me. My broadcast background made me well equipped to tell stories in an engaging way that could push information from specialists to the public but television has never been very good at turning that into two-way conversations that can flow back and forth between the experts and the audience, so the concept of a collaborative model of engagement, in which research was influenced by interactions between the two, was totally new to me.
Thankfully I quickly discovered that the research communication/public engagement community is very active and full of people who are willing to embrace and give guidance to newcomers. And one of the first people I came across was Kimberley Freeman, organiser of the London SciComm Socials (a regular pub-based get together for people working in science communication) and general expert in all things public engagement related.
Kimberley was very generous with her knowledge and contacts and she helped me navigate my way through the often jargonistic and acronym filled world of public engagement. So when I started this podcast she was one of the first people I thought of as an ideal guest to talk about the subject and I'm thrilled to say that she's this week's guest!
Kimberley is now Executive Officer for Public Engagement at Queen Mary University of London, one of the UK's leading universities in public engagement. But her research communication work is not limited to her role at QMUL. She's incredibly dedicated to promoting public engagement and devotes much of her time to organising events like the London SciComm Socials, symposiums and workshops, as well as running the London Public Engagement Network. So I was very grateful to Kimberley for finding time in her busy schedule to sit down with me the other week to talk about how researchers can harness the power of public engagement to boost the impact of their research. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
How do you define public engagement?
That's a really important question. Generally speaking there is a nationally agreed definition from the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE), which is quite long, it includes the phrase 'myriad of ways' which I always think is a great thing to put in a definition - just cover everything! - but the most important thing to take away from it is that it's about sharing knowledge and experience and that sharing should go in two directions, so it should be mutually beneficial and should involve listening as well as speaking. And that's what separates it from more traditional communications activity which might be more about one-way transmission of information out from a source to a waiting audience. This is more about both sides of that conversation getting something.
But the reason we spend so long defining it is that it's not as simple as that. So public engagement can be broken down into three sections, that's how I like to think of it, so you've got
1) The transmission model, the putting stuff out there.
2) At the other end of that you've got the consultation model, so listening to people, putting out public consultations, surveys 'what do you think of this thing?'
3) And in the middle you have the bit that we're most interested in, which is the co-creation bit, the bit where you create something together, as a researcher and your public audience, whoever they may be. That could be a paper, it could be a sculpture, it could be a conversation, it could be a drawing, it could be anything, as peers you create something together.
Of course in practice, you tell people about something (you transmit), you listen to what they think (consult), you do something together (collaborate), you share the results (transmit), you see if you've made a difference (consult), so you're always doing all of it but it is useful to break it down.
Why are some researchers reluctant to get involved in public engagement?
A lack of time is one thing. The pressures on academic colleagues are huge. But I also think it comes down to thinking that public engagement means getting on a stage and talking about it or being on a festival stall and saying 'Hey, come and hear about this thing!' when actually it doesn't have to look like that. You don't have to do public engagement that's all jazz hands and 'look at the joy of my research', it can be behind a wall, you can do it online where you've got that level of detachment. You can do all sorts of things to get non-academic voices into what you do that aren't necessarily about being super chipper and outgoing. And I think that's a message that doesn't come across enough. It feels like you've got to be presenting Horizon, or be dancing your PhD but there are other things you can do. You could be doing the logistics, you could be writing the content, you could be the one building the sets, it doesn't mean you're not part of the public engagement work, even if you don't feel like you want to be the person in the limelight.
The passion for science amongst the Scicomm community is fantastic and infectious but would you say there's a problem with assuming that enthusiasm and inspiring messages are enough when it comes to public engagement?
There's a couple of issues there. One is that I love it when people are that passionate and really just want to share how much they love their thing, it's so infectious. But the negative side of that is the assumption that if everyone knew what you knew they'd feel the same as you, and that's not how it works. So people can know everything you know and still come up with a completely different response, so they won't necessarily think what you think, and that can sometimes disappoint people because they think "if only people knew about my work they'd live their lives differently!" And you only need to think about how many doctors smoke to realise that's not how humans work, you can know something and still act differently.
Again, if you go back to the 'Why are you doing this?' question and really push people on that because if they say, "I really want to inspire people about this thing" and you say, "Ok, why?" the people who have a good answer for that come up with brilliant public engagement projects and the people who falter and say, "Hmm, I'm not sure," tend to find it difficult to know whether they achieved anything at the end of their project, which means they might feel like "I'm not sure if it was worth it." So if you've got a really strong sense of, "This is why i want people to care about this, this is why i think it's interesting, this is why i want to have this conversation," you tend to do a lot better in your public engagement work and a big part of what my team do is talking that through with people and going, "Come on, you definitely know this, that's why you've come to this meeting, I just want to help you draw it out and articulate it a bit."
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Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in the communication of research in science, the social sciences and the humanities.