1.4 Discussion: What is public engagement with research?

1. A research student whose PhD thesis examines the ways in which collections of ancient artefacts are displayed in museums runs a drop-in session at a local museum in which visitors are asked to write their own labels for a selection of artefacts.

Yes, this is public engagement with research. It involves an activity which is directly connected with the PhD student’s research topic. The partnership with the museum, as well as the conversations with the visiting public, enable the researcher to participate in two-way exchanges of ideas. If this activity is done well, all parties (including the researcher) will benefit and learn something new.


2. A lecturer who teaches university modules on ancient Latin literature, and is currently writing a book about the speeches of Cicero, is invited to a local school to give an introductory talk on Virgil’s Aeneid to a class of A level Classical Civilisation students.

No, this is not public engagement with research. The lecturer is giving a talk about an area on which they have specialist knowledge, but it is not the subject of their academic research. This is outreach, which in this case involves working with a local school to provide an enrichment activity.

3. A university lecturer in Classics adapts some of their teaching materials from a first-year undergraduate module to produce an online taster course about Greek drama.

No, this is not public engagement with research. The material being produced here is based on the academic’s teaching material rather than their research. This would be classed as widening participation, as it makes university learning materials available to those who might otherwise not have access to them.

[Note: Public engagement can be delivered online rather than in a face-to-face setting, and indeed online engagement can have some advantages over in-person activities – for example, the ability to reach a wider audience. It would, however, need to involve some element of sharing the academic’s own research in order to be classed as public engagement with research. For an online course to be classed as public engagement it would also need to incorporate some element of two-way discussion; the provision of an online course in itself, without the opportunity for researcher and users to engage with one another, is not public engagement with research.]

4. An archaeologist who is researching a Roman site sets up a local history project sharing her work with pupils from local schools, who are invited to visit the site and to produce drawings and creative writing inspired by the finds. These pieces of work will form part of a public exhibition about the history of the site.

Yes, this is public engagement with research. It involves a partnership between the archaeologist and local schools; the researcher is specifically sharing her research findings and inviting members of the local community (in this case school pupils and their teachers) to be involved in the work. The exhibition which will result provides another opportunity for public engagement with a different audience.