What’s this science communication and public engagement stuff all about?

Helen Obee Reardon | 10 OCT 2017

Helen is a guest writer for The Brain Domain, and is the Impact Specialist in the Business Interface team at Cardiff School of Engineering. She has an MSc Communicating Science and fifteen years’ experience in engagement and science communication.

Science communication and public engagement are terms often used by organisations involved in research, particularly those who spend public money. It’s a requirement of many funding bodies and both are important to universities thanks to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) . But what are they all about?

For me, as for most things to do with engagement, the answer is “It depends…” – the explanation changes depending on the background of the person or organisation providing it and the context of the activity but it’s all based on the same thing. Here I discuss some of the questions I’m regularly asked.

Is STEM communication and science communication the same thing?

It depends (see?). Science communication and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) communication can be considered the same with “science” used as an umbrella term for the STEM subjects. This must irk technologists, engineers and mathematicians somewhat but it is the current common usage: it’s not unusual for those outside the sector not to know what STEM means. However, organisations such as the British Interactive Group (BIG) refers to STEM communicators; this reflects the broad base of their membership and our sector is familiar with the term. From now on I’ll refer only to science communication to avoid headaches.

So what’s the difference between engagement and public engagement?

It depends (just kidding). Nothing at all: you’ve just specifically defined the audience. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) definition is useful:

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 generating mutual benefit.

The key points here are:

  • the two way exchange – without it it’s not engagement, it’s probably outreach
  • mutual benefit – each party should get something from it. To realise these benefits the needs of the audience must be considered and met before meeting those delivering engagement: if the audience isn’t considered from the start it’s unlikely to go well

Audience? Eh?

Not necessarily to do with a show, it just means the group of people you’ve identified to work with. They could have an interest in your specialism or be an identified group you want to work with such as a school, community or organisation. It can be as broad as “the public” or as specific as a named community group.

Outreach? Eh?

This is an interesting term as it means different things to different people. In my experience it’s often a default setting: let’s go and impart our knowledge to a group who will be grateful to receive it. To put it politely this is patronising and unpleasant, reinforcing a negative stereotype of science (see NCCPE’s definition above). It’s also an application of the deficit model which is generally acknowledged as not the way things are done nowadays. There is a place for this form of outreach but only as long as it’s honestly the best way to deliver this project for this audience.

So is science communication the same as public engagement?

It depends (no, really it does). To me the core skills, tools and techniques are the same but the application can change; a science communication project might have public engagement as an element and vice versa. Science communication is the thing you do, the public is who you do it with (note: not to).

1 PE vs Sci comm
Depending on the project public engagement and science communication can be the technique or the overarching aim. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

What does good science communication and public engagement look like?

It depends (I did warn you). That’s a tough one. “Good” is different to different audiences, projects and practitioners so it’s hard to point at one thing. Below is my model of thinking about both which may help; my model evolves and changes over time depending on who I’m working for, the audiences I’m working with and the aim of the project.

2 PE model
An engagement or science communication model. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

I also recommend looking at Participation Cymru’s National Principles for Public Engagement. By following these you should produce a good piece of engagement.

3 National-Principles-for-Public-Engagement-in-Wales-English

What is the public?

Interesting question, NCCPE have discussed this and whether it should be “public” or “publics”; while technically you may be working with publics the more common usage is “public”.

When should I engage?

It depends (there I go again) on the desired outcome: do you want to inform research, find research subjects or partners, or disseminate your findings?

4 When to engage
The points in a project when engagement can be useful. Orange arrows show inputs and outputs. All rights reserved Helen Obee Reardon.

Why should I do engagement/science communication? What are the benefits?

It depends (seriously). There are various reasons and benefits, these are a few of them:

  • To inform your project
  • To gather data (make sure you sort the ethics out)
  • To disseminate your findings
  • To get a fresh perspective on your work
  • Because you want to
  • Because someone said you have to (it happens)
  • Because it’s in the funding application (it also happens)

Do I have to do it? What if I’m no good?

In an ideal world you wouldn’t. But let’s face it this world is far from ideal: sometimes we have no choice if it’s been written into a funding application or we’re instructed by someone higher up. Look for support to help you, the steps above can help you plan and deliver something that should be successful. Please don’t let the audience know you don’t want to be there, it never ends well for you or for them.

The trick is finding out what type of engagement you’re good at and start there. I’m rather good running projects that involve face-to-face engagement so that’s mainly what I do: this whole written word thing doesn’t come naturally but I’ve decided to learn through writing this blog.

This is a field where you learn by doing; pick up the basics first and then there’s no substitute for getting out there, doing, reflecting, refining and doing it again. And again, and again…


Never fear: your organisation is likely to have support available, it’s just a matter of finding it. Please ask, all of us involved in science communication and public engagement have asked for help at some point and this is a highly collaborative field. To help you out I’ve written a blog about sources of support. If you have any questions pop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction.

Good luck and I hope to see you out there sometime.

This article was originally posted on Helen’s personal blog.

Edited by Jonathan Fagg

One thought on “What’s this science communication and public engagement stuff all about?

  1. Hi, just bumped into this article. In the paragraph titled “do I have to do it” you say “In an ideal world you wouldn’t”. What do you mean by that – do you mean that in a perfect world science engagement is not necessary? Or implied in funding? Or does someone else take care of it and scientist don’t have to do it? I am really curious, been working in the field for couple of years (on science centre side of the field) and this is the first time I meet with this idea. Many thanks for replying 🙂


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