Many Approaches to Public Engagement

How public engagement works
Policy Deliberation
Public Dialogue
Knowledge Co-Production
University-Led Cooperative Engagement

How public engagement works

Scientists are supported in their public engagement efforts by an array of professionals, including public engagement practitioners who have expertise in conducting public engagement, can more easily connect scientists to various publics, and can support and train scientists for their engagement. Practitioners translate best practices from public engagement research and work with evaluators to understand the impact of public engagement activities. Join the Public Engagement with Science group on Trellis, AAAS’ new web-based scientific communication and collaboration platform, to connect with others who can help you get started!  

Below are descriptions of different types of public engagement activities, with different goals and approaches.

A visual model of public engagement

Policy Deliberation

Public input into science-related policymaking is an important facet of public engagement with science, and is typically oriented toward achieving actions or outputs from the interactions. These approaches can focus on long-range planning perspectives, continuous public consultation, and institutional self-reflection and course correction in response to public input on new (Einsiedel, 2015)

Example: Public Input in U.S. Science Policy

In the mid-2000s, with a legislative mandate from Congress and funding from the National Science Foundation, policy-focused engagement efforts in the U.S. expanded to focus on emerging issues related to nanotechnology and synthetic biology, with deliberation taking place "upstream" (i.e., earlier in the development process, before technology hits the market). Such efforts can involve members of the public in important exploratory conversations that identify and anticipate social, political, and ethical concerns. On more mature issues such as drug regulation or stem cell research, deliberation exercises can enrich discussion of possible policy options, eliciting public input on the pros and cons of different courses of action, including whether and how to move forward with related policies (Macnaghten and Chilvers, 2013).

Public Dialogue

In public dialogue approaches, the goal is to promote dialogue as an end in itself, recognizing that informal discussions with the public can result in learning by both the public and experts. Dialogue-focused forums also serve as opportunities for experts to enhance their own communication knowledge, skills, and experience. Overall, such initiatives provide a chance for the organizers and the participants to explore scientific issues via multiple lenses and perspectives (Einsiedel 2015).

Example: Science cafés and festivals

Science cafés are casual forums that “host conversations between scientists and the public about current science topics.” They are generally small in size, taking place in cafés, restaurants, bookstores, or similar venues, and they are open to everyone regardless of scientific knowledge or training. They provide an opportunity to engage citizens who otherwise might not participate in discussions about science, technology, and the surrounding societal issues. A typical science café is approximately 90 minutes long and involves both expert speakers and a moderator. Usually speakers give short presentations without visual aids, aiding connection with the audience (Navid and Einsiedel, 2012).

Science festivals, another example, are a relatively new type of dialogue-based engagement that appear to be rapidly growing. Festivals generally bring together temporary exhibits, museum-type activities, scientists, art organizations, students, and members of the general public -- attracting thousands of visitors (Jensen & Buckley, 2014).

Knowledge Co-Production

These public engagement initiatives sponsor “intentional collaborations in which members of the public engage in the process of research to generate new science-based knowledge” (Shirk et al. 2012).

Example: Citizen Science

Citizen science projects initially began as a way to use the public as a source of labor and computational power. Today, citizen science projects are more inclusive, even involving citizens in the definition of research questions, the interpretation of data, and broader translation and policy efforts (Einsiedel 2015).

University-Led Cooperative Engagement

The emphasis in these initiatives is on trust-building and social learning in collaboration with key stakeholder groups such as farmers, coastal land owners, minority groups, and industry members.  These initiatives are typically led by universities and/or deploy university-based networks, resources, and infrastructures such as cooperative extension and Sea Grant programs, or faculty and outreach staff affiliated with specific university departments, colleges, and schools (Diehl et al., 2015).