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Q1. What is the Research Councils definition for public engagement?
Public Engagement
Other useful definitions used by the Research Councils include:
(with research) – this is an umbrella term for any activity that engages the
public with research, from science communication in science centres or festivals, to consultation,
to public dialogue. Any good engagement activity should involve two-way aspects of listening
and interaction.
Science communication – a
one-way process to give information Opinion research – a process whereby opinions are collected
for consideration, but without in-depth discussion of the issues (e.g. opinion-polls). Consultation –
a formal process which allows reaction and response to policies/proposals. Public dialogue – a
form of deliberative (i.e. over time) participatory engagement where the outcomes are used to
inform decision-making. Q2. What’s the difference between a) Science in Society and public engagement, and b) between
public engagement and Communications and Marketing?
a) ‘Science in Society’ and ‘Science and Society’ are terms that have been widely used by a
range of organisations in relation to public engagement e.g. the Wellcome Trust, Royal
Society, BIS etc. For RCUK, this definition covers all research areas. Until recently
Science in Society was the term used by RCUK for its work in the area of public
engagement. RCUK has now changed the name of its public engagement activities to
"Public Engagement with Research" as we found using the term science did not reflect
our remit to cover all areas of research including the arts, humanities and social research.
The term Public Engagement is also now interchangeable with Science in Society.
b) Public Engagement is not the same as either Communications or Marketing, though from
time to time they inevitably overlap. Most PE activities should include two-way
communication. One way communication of information is generally viewed as being a
separate activity to public engagement, as that carried out by PR, media or
communications specialists. For instance, the RCUK Communications team deals
primarily with one-way engagement. It is their responsibility to represent the Research
Councils in a positive light with regards to what we are doing via press releases and
statements for example. They may promote the work that the Public Engagement with
Research team is undertaking with regards to Public Engagement with research but are not
responsible for undertaking and facilitating this work themselves. There are obviously
crossover areas between communications as described here and public engagement, as
when, for instance, a researcher presents an engaging science documentary for a public
audience, but it is useful to bear in mind that many communications activities align with a
deficit model of public engagement.
Q3. Why do people sometimes talk about public dialogue when they mean public
Since 2000, public dialogue has emerged as a more developed approach to public engagement
than science communication alone. At its simplest, it’s a two-way form of communication that
gives interested publics the opportunity to explore issues linking to science and make their views
clearly known. It moves towards presenting science in its social context, valuing public
knowledge and addressing fundamental questions shaping science in society, such as control,
ownership, ethical and moral issues etc. Public dialogue alone is usually not suitable for most
public engagement strategies, because these usually need to engage people on a range of
different levels.
As described in the response to Q1, the Research Councils definition of public dialogue is a form
of deliberative (i.e. over time) participatory engagement where the outcomes are used to inform
Q4. What’s the connection between PE and young people?
In recent years, tensions in the perceived relationship between science and publics has also
coincided with a steady decline in the take-up of science subjects in schools and higher education
– while it is important to note that the two trends are not necessarily linked, this decline has also
driven development of public engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths
(STEM) initiatives for young people. Q5. Is there evidence of an anti-science and engineering culture in the UK?
Although a commonly cited perception, the research evidence does not necessarily support the
view that there is a general anti-science culture in the UK
. Publics obviously have concerns
about specific technologies or areas of science and may have more general concerns, however. For
example in the ESRC study
35-45% typically express concerns that science and technology is
developing 'too fast', and 55-75% that scientists pay insufficient attention to potential risks. The
BIS PAS surveys
According to ESRC research, one of the reasons for the perception of an anti-science culture
might instead be a general decrease in deference to authority, institutions and professions in
general and a decline in the willingness of publics to uncritically accept scientific opinion or new
have also found that there are particular issues giving rise to public concern,
but that attitudes to individual issues also change over time (e.g. computers/the internet/email
were more widely seen as being beneficial in 2005 than in 1989/99 – 41% vs. 28%).
The 'deficit model' (see section above) approach to public engagement tends to oversimplify the
issues and lead to solutions focused on scientific communication. This approach can fail to
address core underlying issues such as attitudes to governance or a wide range of other factors
that give rise to dissident voice or disengagement, many of which can obscure or become
overlaid onto attitudes to science itself.
Q6. Should the Councils think about making it compulsory for all researchers to carry out public
engagement activities?
RCUK support the idea that public engagement should be a part of every skilled researcher’s
portfolio alongside teaching, thinking about knowledge transfer, international working etc.
However, RCUK doesn’t consider that researcher’s PE contributions should take place through
front line public engagement in every instance – there will be individuals not naturally suited to
engaging public audiences directly, who nevertheless are excellent researchers, and ways to
accommodate this need to be found in the longer term within e.g. impact reporting on research
grants or career progression criteria.

The Public Attitudes to Science survey (
conducted by BIS in 2011 showed the opposite in most cases. Overall, attitudes to science are positive and
interest in science has increased since 2000. ‘I am amazed by the achievements of science’ – up to 86% from
75% in 2000; Science is such a big part of our lives we should all take an interest’ – up to 82% from 74% in
2000. The 2011 survey also found that nine in ten (88%) think “scientists make a valuable contribution to
society”, while eight in ten (82%) think they “want to make life better for the average person”. The proportion
agreeing that scientists want to make lives better has increased consistently since 2000, suggesting public
perceptions of scientists have improved. In the same survey 83% respondents trusted university scientists to
follow rules and regulation.
The ESRC study "Towards a better map: Science, the public and the media"
( found that 70%
agreed with the statement that most scientific research was aimed at improving human life
BIS Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) surveys - there have been four of these since 2000, all essentially
designed to assess the attitude of UK publics to science and engineering. Each had a sample size of
approximately 2000. RCUK commissioned the 2008 survey on BIS’s behalf.
One of the findings from ESRC's Science in Society Research Programme (