What is PE?

Public engagement (PE) is an umbrella term which is widely used to describe the process of engaging non-specialist public groups with a specific discipline or element of research. The term is commonly used across STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and is also used by sectors including the arts, heritage and local government.

Public engagement goes beyond the widening participation and knowledge transfer remits of most universities. It can include awareness raising, the promotion of dialogue and consultation and involves working with communities, special interest groups or young people, both through formal and informal education.

Those who are experienced in public engagement are adept at identifying the wider impacts of research and discovery, and can tailor their language and choice of communication methods for a variety of non-specialist audiences.

There are many reasons for undertaking public engagement:

Develop new skills – Public engagement helps you to develop many transferable skills in areas such as: communication, presenting to different audiences and project management.

Promote your institution – Public engagement can help to foster links between HEIs and their local communities and schools.

Satisfy expectations – Funding bodies, government and HEIs expect you to demonstrate that you have clearly thought about your ‘Pathways to Impact’.

Enhance your research – Through consultation with the public you might discover new ideas and contexts for your research that you would never have thought of.

Provide publicity for you and your research – Your PE activities may raise the profile of your research, leading to interest from funders, the media, and other institutions. (Leading to future funding, partnerships and career prospects).

Gain additional funding – Most academic funders in the UK recognise the importance of public engagement. Well defined public engagement plans should be a part of your research applications. There are also a number of public engagement specific grant schemes that you can apply to.

Inspire and assure the workforce of the future – Good public engagement may lead to more student uptake of your research area.

Accountability – Much of the research funding available comes from the public (e.g. through government funded research councils). Those holding public funds are accountable to the way the money is spent.

Build trust between researchers and the public – increased trust and awareness leads to greater public support for your research activities.

Enjoyment – Many of the people we have trained and worked with have found their public engagement work both fun and rewarding.

Useful links

Graphic Science Ltd

science made simple

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE)

How to do it: engagement in practice. The NCCPE’s toolkit for conducting PE

Research Council’s UK (RCUK) Public Engagement team

The Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research

The British Science Association

The ISOTOPE website – featuring resources for the science outreach and public engagement community

Useful e-mailing lists


The British Interactive Group’s Big-Chat

Public Engagement training lies at the core of the research-based training activities of the EU-funded LASSIE initial training network. We asked the Training Group to provide appropriate and fun training for our young scientists during an intense two week programme of activities combining our science, professional skills and public engagement. The result was an outstanding success for all concerned!

Professor Martin McCoustra
Professor of Chemical Physics at Heriot-Watt University and coordinator of the EU FP7 funded LASSIE network