What exactly public engagement is, is a contentious subject. Those with a more literal mind might think “Well public engagement is obviously engaging with the public, what a silly question”.

Well those with literal minds have never counted on two things: scientists and university admin – the two most non-literal areas in the existence of mankind, and both of which have some strong opinions on the use of the term ‘public engagement’.

To help outline the competing perspectives within a university on public engagement I’m going to invent an entirely fictional meeting. Now for some this highly fictional meeting may closely resemble one I talked about attending earlier this year. But this one is entirely fictional so it’s nothing like that one.

This fictional meeting’s purpose is to create a public engagement strategy for a fictional University. The fictional meeting has a team comprised of all those with a stake in public engagement within the University: 2 people from marketing, 2 from events, 2 academics, and 1 from senior management. A nice selection of the range of people likely to have opinions on public engagement and a very convenient diverse fictional tool for the sake of writing this blog post.

The very first question at the meeting is of course “what do we consider to be public engagement?”

Marketing person 1: “Surly anything we do that involves taking work to the public is engagement.”

Marketing person 2: “Yeah we did a student recruitment event that was great for engaging with students that want to come here”

Academics 1 & 2: *Share a worried look*

Marketers are nothing if not focused on marketing and the idea of having scientists talking to the public clearly gets them very excited about turning all of them into walking University adverts.

Now with all due respect to marketing, not everything is about marketing. Public engagement isn’t about pushing an agenda to sell courses or get students to have some flyers. If by engaging they are interested in the university then that’s a great bonus but it shouldn’t be the aim. If you are measuring your public engagement by how many people signed up to our open day, you’re doing it wrong.

Events person 1: “Can this be about that thing we did where we showed off a load of stuff for the public to come see?”

Events person 2: “Yes! We can invite industry partners!”

Academic 2 : *worried look intensifies*

Academic 1: *eye twitches*

Now with events this gets a bit closer to being actual public engagement. Events to explain and communicate research to the public are exactly the kind of thing that fit under the remit of public engagement. There are countless examples of events like SoapBox Science, PubhD and The Story Collider, which are fantastic ways to get scientists explaining their work to the public. That is most definitely public engagement.

Events that are about inviting industry or other funders and starting projects are not public engagement. That is touting for business. It’s not a bad idea but trying to get more public money is not engaging with the public, no matter how much you rattle the ‘research money’ tin at them.

Senior management: “So how do we track the cash value for all of this? I mean how to we record how much it brings into the university?”

Academic 2: *looks very worriedly at Academic 1*

Academic 1: *looks wild eyed and digs fingers into the table*

As a University if you are looking to make money from public engagement then you are doing it wrong, very wrong. You should absolutely think critically about the public engagement you are doing and make sure that it is achieving the goals you want and reaching the audience you are trying to reach but if one of your goals is “hard cold cash” then you really don’t get the point of public engagement.

Public engagement for researchers is not about making money (though there are exceptions), it’s about researchers reaching out to be people and helping them understand what you do and why it matters (to them). If you spend all your time nickel-andiming the public (“for £1 this scientist will show you a 10 second demo!”)  then they are mostly going to think your job is to con small children out of their pocket money.

Senior management: “So why are we even doing any of this!??”

Academic 2: *appears to start praying*

Academic 1: *launches across table brandishing a particularly sharp pencil*

So as a university why do it or support it? You can’t sell university courses, you can’t try and get more business cards from rich businesses, you can’t charge for it, why do it at all!?

For the researchers it’s because helping educate the public about their work is utterly vital part of being a researcher. Because the more researchers try outreach the better educators they become, both to the public and to their students. Because it’s something that gives researchers that take part in it a sense of job satisfaction (nothing makes you feel better about your job that school kids saying “wow” when you describe what you do).

For universities, because it does all the things you want it to do, but as side effects. By supporting researchers doing it you’ll likely make your university look like a better place to come and study. Every kid has parents (apologies to Bruce Wayne) who might work in industries that hear about what your researchers do. And some of your researches might get so good at it they can apply for grants to support doing more of it!

Public engagement comes in all shapes and sizes. Universities can get everything they could ever want out of public engagement. But they are more likely to get it out if they support their researchers doing things that focus first on engaging with the public, and enjoy the side effect. No good public engagement strategy starts with “How can we sell this and how much can we make?”.

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