Public engagement and impact

Strawberry DNA activityThis toolkit is for University staff and students who are undertaking a public engagement event to demonstrate the impact of their research.

The page covers:

  • What is Impact?
  • How can public engagement lead to impact?
  • Top tips

What is impact?

Impact is the demonstrable benefit to society or the economy that comes from academic research. Public engagement can be a rewarding and useful way to generate impact. It can take many forms and reach many audiences, from children to associations of enthusiasts, from the general public to specific interest groups. However, public engagement in itself is not always impact.

Impact is defined as informing, influencing or challenging the understanding, behaviour, views or values of non-experts (e.g. the general public, schools, community and interest groups). Engagement is two way and can help to shape your research through new perspectives.

How can public engagement lead to impact?

Impact is an additional means of demonstrating the importance of research and is required by a number of funding bodies. Here are a few things you need to consider if you are going to use public engagement to generate impact from your research.

To generate impact, the public engagement activity must be your research or in an area of your expertise, not just raising awareness of the research area in general. You need to consider your audience, any partners and the kind of engagement activities you will undertake as early as possible. Public engagement is not just used to disseminate your results at the end of the project; it can be used throughout your project to help shape the direction of your research.

This is usually called collaborative research or co-created research.

Collaborative research may involve working with someone in another department, in another organisation or with community groups . The collaboration may take place in a part or whole of the research and the result is usually a new research question or a new way of communicating the research. For example, rather than doing a public lecture, you may decide to represent your research by making a film or an exhibition.

Co-created research typically involves in-depth working with a non-academic group who have some shared characteristics where the research participants and the researcher work together to produce some new findings or research. The involvement of the non-academic audience typically takes place throughout the research, not just for part of it. For example, this may involve working with a group to document their experiences through art or storytelling. Both of these can be useful ways of working closely with non-academic audiences in a detailed way to demonstrate the impact of your research.

Identifying potential groups to work with will be needed early in the process to allow you to plan appropriate activities and to consider the training and resources you will need.

Toolkit for planning your public engagement event 

The audience:

When you are preparing your engagement activity, think about how you are going to communicate with the audience and what you want to achieve from the public engagement.  You are looking for a two-way engagement with the audience that allows the potential to inform your research and can inform their understanding or beliefs.  Working with the creative sector, such as artists, dancers, musicians or animators is a fantastic way to engage audiences with new ideas or provide background information to allow a meaningful interaction.

By involving your audience from the start, and continually asking for feedback, you may be able to refine the research throughout the engagement which may ultimately develop your research question or lead to other research projects/questions to gain further impact directly from audience/stakeholder engagement.

Communicating research:

Think about the best way to communicate your research widely. You will need to think about your audience, you don’t have to dumb down your research but also you can’t expect your audience to be very familiar with your area.  You need to also think about how you will engage the audience with the subject matter especially if it challenges social assumptions. People will participate more if they feel they have enough information to understand and contribute. If people can engage fully then the are more likely to use and pass on the findings of your research.

Demonstrating change:

One way to see whether understanding, behaviour, views or values of the audience has changed and to see whether your event has generated impact is to ask for feedback. You should aim to create an environment where everyone can feel they can take part and to ask questions during the engagement. Another is through evaluation during or at the end of the event. A link to the evaluation toolkit is here.

It may be that you need more time to demonstrate and capture the change and follow up work with attendees can be conducted after the event. You should also capturing the quantitative information from your event such as, numbers of people, background etc, can be used to demonstrate the reach of your impact.

Top tips

Public engagement can be a fun and accessible way to generate impact from your research, but remember:

  • Impact is the change or benefit outside academia that comes from your research so public engagement can be a route to this change
  • It will work best when you plan your engagement with your audience’s needs in mind
  • Don’t dumb down your research, but consider the best way to communicate it. You’ll get the best response when people feel they’ve been given enough information to contribute
  • Understand the purpose of your engagement and give people an opportunity to respond
  • Ask the right questions in the right timeframe
  • Collect quantitative information and qualitative feedback to show the ‘impact’