Why bother with public engagement?

The benefits to scientists of sharing their work with the public are many. Marine ecologist and SciConnect director Jon Copley gives his personal round-up of some reasons for sharing your work with wider audiences.

“Dear Dr Copley,” the letter began. “We are in Year 4 at school and we are learning about seashores. We have questions for you.” The letter, from a class of 8-year-olds, came completely out of the blue and was painstakingly pencilled in a child’s best handwriting. The questions were straightforward enough, but one in particular made me smile:

“Why are there fish?”

That’s an excellent question. Why ARE there fish? To answer it, you need to think about what was around before fish, the advantages of a fishy body, and how natural selection works.  The question made me look at something familiar in a new and fresh way. In formulating an answer, I revisited long-neglected ideas gathering dust at the back of my mind, which prompted new insights in my own research, the patterns of life at deep-sea volcanic vents. And it helped to remind me why I love what I do–not that I ever forget, but it’s easy for the daily grind of paper and grant writing and research admin to get on top of you.

It’s experiences like this that fuel my conviction that public engagement and research productivity are synergistic, rather than antagonistic. But although most funding agenciesand research institutions now recognise the value of public engagement in their strategic goals, it’s only natural for time-poor researchers to ask “why?” and “what’s in it for me?”

In the past, I’ve occasionally encountered a snobbish view that those who spend time on public engagement are somehow second-class researchers.  It may be true that those who are juggling several successfully-funded projects have less time, but it doesn’t follow that those spending time on public engagement are therefore poorer researchers.  I’d argue that good researchers are often great communicators, because they see their science most clearly.

The skills and experience involved in sharing your work with wider audiences are highly transferable in a research career.  When I’m writing the non-technical summary for a grant proposal, I draw more on my experience as a science journalist than as an academic author.  Justifying your work in a few hundred words for the busy non-specialists of a grant committee is not the same as writing a technical report.  It involves seeing and conveying the “big picture” effectively, which is also at the heart of sharing your work with wider audiences.  So if you can explain your project clearly to a child, a grant committee becomes less daunting.

Similarly, we’re all non-specialists when we step a short distance outside our own disciplines.  “Non-specialist audiences” therefore include colleagues in other fields, and being able to talk and listen to them can lead to new collaborations and avenues for research.  “Crowdsourcing” data collection or data analysis through public engagement has also allowed some researchers to tackle questions beyond the scope of traditional projects.  Here I’m thinking of climate-modelling and signal-processing screensavers, or projects that have worked with gardeners to record changes in the seasonal blooming of plants and the arrivals of migratory birds.

Sharing your work with wider audiences also taps into a much larger pool of experience and perspectives than your own.  I recently gave a talk about my research to a local group of retired people.  One of their questions about my work was metaphorical, asking “is this like…?”.  The answer was “no”, but pondering exactly why during the drive home gave me a new perspective on a research problem.  And that will be going in my next grant proposal.

I’ve not touched on the benefits to society that arise from sharing your work with wider audiences, which have been well-covered elsewhere.  It is promising, however, that those benefits are now identified as “research impact” in the Research Excellence Framework that governs central funding to UK universities.  And “public engagement” is a two-way street: our research can benefit from it, as well as society.  It would be pretty arrogant to assume that no-one outside your research group or field can offer any useful insights and perspectives on your research problems.  But if you never share your work with wider audiences, you’ll never find them.

As for the original question, “Why are there fish?”, I’m afraid I can’t tell you how I replied. It’s such a great question that I now occasionally set it as a tutorial essay for my undergraduates.

 

 

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