Universities should support public engagement: why and how

Canadian Association for Girls In Science (CAGIS)
Canadian Association for Girls In Science (CAGIS)

Science and society need each other. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark demonstration of why this is—just as we rely on scientists to research the SARS-CoV-2 virus, treatments, and vaccines, we also need members of the public and policymakers to use emerging insights to make the best decisions possible. This requires channels and norms for scientists to share their expertise, it requires trust between scientists and diverse communities, and it requires public dialogues about how evidence should be used to make decisions. When scientists can engage effectively with public audiences, their research is more likely to be useful and used.

Of course, the pandemic is just one crisis—one scientific issue with massive importance to societal well-being and progress. At the same time, we’re grappling with new technologies that push us to negotiate ethical boundaries, we’re working to eradicate and treat a wide range of other diseases, and we’re confronting a global climate emergency. Science can help us navigate these issues, but for this to happen, we need a culture of widespread and effective public engagement.

What is public engagement?

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement shares the following definition:

“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 listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”

For cell biologists, public engagement can take many forms. For example, ASCB’s public engagement grants have supported projects that provide K-12 students with hands-on science experiences, such as those included in Clubes de Ciencia, a series of workshops for high school and college students; the Canadian Association for Girls In Science (CAGIS), a club for girls to explore STEM; and the Flipped Science Fair, which has middle school student judges evaluate graduate students and postdocs presenting their current research. Public engagement activities can also focus on communicating with adults, for example by publishing articles online in outlets like The Conversation, sharing science on social media, telling science stories, or participating in local government.

Why should universities support public engagement?

When universities support researchers who engage with public audiences, they are investing in the future—in their employees, their surrounding communities, and the scientific enterprise more broadly. Public engagement benefits scientists because it provides unique opportunities to hone skills in project management, communication, and relationship-building. It helps scientists share their science and their expertise, allowing them to become more visible outside their immediate scientific community. Public engagement can provide researchers with new ways of thinking about their research, and conversations with diverse audiences can spark new research or application ideas. As a result, public engagement can result in more robust science and stronger pathways for its use in society.

At the same time, public engagement is one strategy for improving diversity and inclusion in science. When researchers engage in effective and inclusive ways with diverse audiences, members of underrepresented communities have greater access to science, can connect it to their lives, and have more opportunities to pursue scientific careers.

Public engagement directly benefits universities, too. It makes the university more visible and bolsters the institution’s reputation. It can help attract students and researchers who value public engagement and impact, and it can also help the university attract funds, both from donors and grants. In addition, public engagement is central to accomplishing most universities’ missions of applying knowledge for public good.

How can universities support public engagement?

Public engagement cannot be an item on a checklist. It’s not something that a university supports through a single program or by hiring a specific staff member. Instead, it needs to be woven into an institution’s culture, reflected in its policies, programs, and personnel, and prioritized by the members of the university community. This culture change is a long-term endeavor, but there are important steps that universities can begin to take in the short term toward this goal:

  • Account for public engagement in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions: If a department indicates that public engagement will not facilitate career advancement, it will be difficult for researchers to incorporate it in their work in sustained or substantive ways. Academic leaders can assess the extent to which public engagement is rewarded by their advancement policies and begin conversations on expanding rewards for those who make an impact through public engagement.
  • Signal the value of public engagement: Researchers can encourage others to engage by sharing their own views and experiences with public engagement, since this helps normalize this work and encourages more researchers to consider its value. Academic leaders, such as PIs, instructors, department chairs, and deans especially have the opportunity to influence mindsets and actions. When leaders publicly praise members of the community who engage with public audiences, elevate opportunities for public engagement, or demonstrate their own public engagement, their colleagues and students take note. Leaders who model the incorporation of engagement in their own work and are vocal champions of engagement can effectively encourage others to act similarly and to value their colleagues’ engagement efforts.
  • Foster community among researchers who engage: On a single campus, public engagement opportunities and insights are often disconnected from each other, which means that few researchers even know what opportunities exist. Universities can hold events for networking and learning, invest in staff who can coordinate campus activities, or set up communication channels that facilitate connections and insight sharing so that their students, faculty, and staff are more connected to opportunities to engage and to learn about engagement.

These are three of the many ways that universities can begin taking steps to bolster their support for public engagement. Fully incorporating public engagement into academia will look different at every institution. It will involve many stakeholders and will take time. But it’s an endeavor that more and more universities and researchers are coming to recognize as essential—it will improve our science, our universities, and our world.

About the Author:

Rose Hendricks is a social scientist who leads the Society Civic Science Initiative, a collaboration among science societies to support members’ public and civic engagement efforts.