Back in 2018, following their faculty-level Gold Watermark award from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, the School of Life Sciences started work on their action plan in response to the award.
Professor Nicola Stanley-Wall, Academic Lead for Public Engagement in the School, instigated the ‘Why Engage?’ campaign in an effort to get more academics to share their ground-breaking research. Hazel Lambert, then a freelance science communicator and now Public Engagement with Research Manager at the University of Edinburgh, was commissioned to interview members of Life Sciences and Medicine about the benefits of public engagement for them.
Two years since the Why Engage? booklet and social media campaign outlining their insights was launched, we asked Hazel to reflect on the project especially at a time where social distancing has put a pause on the majority of public engagement events.
Today, every single one of us is coping with new ways of working and living. The public engagement world has tilted like every other. Some activities are moving online for the first time, others like ‘I’m a Scientist, Stay at Home’ are expanding to offer an opportunity for lab-based researchers to take part while they are away from the bench. But there is one thing that all of us can do in lockdown to take our first steps in engagement with research – write.
I don’t mean write a literature review or a paper, I mean write about what you know, refine the words you use, make your case for why your work is important. Describe it for the people it might matter to most but who have never heard of a P value, don’t understand a graph’s curve at a glance or think ‘clothes’ in response to the word model.
“If you can’t explain your work on a really basic level, then what are you doing?” – Lesley-Anne Pearson
I still smile every time a scientist says to me “my work is too complicated to explain.” It happens less often now than it did ten years ago but my response is still the same – “try harder.” If you really understand something you can always find a way to explain it. Spending time now writing for an imaginary online visitor to your lab or a lay reviewer on a grant panel will pay-back the next time you need to write a grant application, or you publish a paper the university wishes to press release.
“Being able to articulate ideas well will definitely help when writing grants in the future too – you have to communicate clearly if you want to persuade people to fund your work.” – Maithili Shroff
Public Engagement describes the many ways scientists can share research with new audiences and listen in response. It is a two-way process that enables change for mutual benefit. It is not about telling people why science is good for them, just as it’s not about non-experts telling experts what to do. Genuine engagement has the capacity to lead to research that has more of an impact on our world. It can build trust in new technologies, open new research directions and draw-on lived experience as a source of new ideas. But to invite perspective, first, you have to be able to explain what you are trying to achieve. Which is why, if you have some time, at this unprecedented time, I urge you to write, the benefit will come later but it will be time well spent now.
When I wrote Why Engage? for the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, your professorial, PhD student, technician, post doc and clinical research colleagues told me what they gained from taking part in public engagement.
You can read their words here: Why Engage?
They demonstrate that there is much to gain from spending your time engaging others in research.
“The ability to tailor language to different groups of people is actually crucial.” – Andrew Lim
Research scientists are contributing to public life in a more visible way than at any other time in our recent history in response to Covid-19. What those with a high profile right now have in common, in addition to their research credentials, is the ability to communicate well. As governments debate what we need to do next there is one certainty; moving forward will take a united effort from all parts of our society. My hope for the research community is that as we emerge from this pandemic, we take with us the realisation that clear communication and public engagement have value and are beneficial to research. If you agree, start writing, you never know where it will take you.
Hazel Lambert, Public Engagement with Research Manager, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh.