What is public engagement and why is it important?

Mobile University talkThis toolkit is for University staff and students who are looking to get started with public engagement

The page covers:

  • How public engagement is defined
  • What type of events can be considered public engagement
  • Why public engagement is important
  • Top tips

What is public engagement?

Public engagement can be defined in a number of different ways and can cover a broad range of activites, including:

  • Public engagement around research
  • Collaborations in enterprise
  • Teaching led engagement
  • Schools and outreach activity
  • Other corporate social responsibility activities undertaken by the University

The focus of the Public Engagement & Impact Team at the University of Sheffield is on engagement activity related to our world-class research, taking place primarily within the local region. This focus is in part determined by the terms of our external funding and the guidelines set out by the Research Councils UK (RCUK).

The National Co-ordination Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) defines public engagement as:
‘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’.


Events that may be considered public engagement include: lectures, panel debates, participatory dialogue events (e.g. focus group, workshop), demonstrations, ‘hands-on’ events (e.g. museum workshop), film screenings, theatre performances or exhibitions.

The Public Engagement & Impact Team

The Public Engagement and Impact Team in Research & Innovation Services supports engagement events which are aimed at the general public. The team runs a number of festivals, such as Festival of the Mind, Life Festival, Festival of Social Sciences, Sheffield Festival of Science and Engineering and Mobile University, and sponsor other festivals in Sheffield such as Doc/Fest and Off the Shelf,  as well as organising one off events. These events and festivals can act as platforms for you to engage the public with your research.

At the University of Sheffield, there is a separate team that deals with outreach and widening participation activities with school children, their contact details are available here. Additionally some faculties have their own outreach staff.

Why is it important?

Undertaking public engagement is important because:

  • Funding bodies may require it
  • It gives you a chance to share your work with the public
  • It can be part of your pathways to impact for your research project
  • It’s fun!
  • It can develop your career
  • It’s an opportunity to raise the profile of your research, explain it in a different way and generate some conversation

Top tips

If you have not undertaken public engagement before, here are some tips:

  • Start with a small scale event and build up from there
  • Engaging with the general public is different to other activities you may have done before so make sure your event is appropriate
  • Make the content suitable for a general audience. This doesn’t mean it needs to be 'dumbed-down' but you may have to think creatively about how you get your message across
  • You are the expert … to an extent. BUT be prepared to listen to your audience
  • Download our event planner from the 'Downloads' box on right of page to get started