1.1 Defining public engagement

The terms 'public engagement', or 'public engagement with research' (sometimes abbreviated to 'PE' or 'PER') can refer to a whole range of activities which are designed to share work done by academic researchers with non-specialist audiences. 'Non-specialist audiences' is the term used in this course to describe those who do not already have expertise in the academic discipline which is the focus of your research.

Whilst there is no single definition of ‘public engagement’, the phrasing adopted by the UK’s National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) is a helpful starting point. The NCCPE describes public engagement as follows:

“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 delivering mutual benefit.”

Note the emphasis in this definition on engagement as a ‘two-way process’ which delivers ‘mutual benefit’; these are crucial aspects of effective public engagement. It is not simply about the delivery of knowledge by a researcher to a passive recipient, but rather it is an active two-way process, a conversation between the researcher and other people during which all parties, including the researcher, learn something new (this process is sometimes referred to as ‘knowledge exchange’). The learning which takes place might not merely be in the form of new information or understanding, but it could also involve the development of new skills (for example, the ability to work collaboratively, manage a budget, or communicate with a different audience), or capacity building (where an organisation or individual becomes more effective at what they already do).


Six performers on a stage, each of them speaking into a microphone, are watched by an audienceActivities relating to public engagement with research might involve any of the following (although this is not an exhaustive list):

  • delivering and participating in public events;

  • partnerships with creative practitioners (for example artists, writers, or theatre-makers);

  • collaborating with external organisations (such as charities, schools, businesses, heritage organisations, libraries, museums, or community groups);

  • developing or delivering crowdsourcing projects;

  • working with print, broadcast, or digital media

It is possible for any of these activities to take place either in person or online; in both of these settings mutual benefit can be generated. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the NCCPE produced a guide to online engagement which you can download here.