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4.7 Public Communication of Research

You cannot truly practice openness in research without considering the public communication of your work (sometimes also called “public engagement” or “outreach”). Public engagement is not just about communicating the conclusions of your research with interested audiences. It also involves engaging with members of wider society regarding the social, ethical and philosophical aspects of your research – sometimes even before you have begun your project! But why spend time discussing your research with those outside your field, people who aren’t even researchers? Public communication of your research makes it more impactful and useful to others. And it also fulfils the implicit obligation we have as researchers to share the knowledge we acquire on behalf of humanity at large.

The motivations for public communication of research and the methods of doing so have evolved over the years. While older models featured one-way communication – from scientists to the public, in the form of lectures and popular articles – the recent model of “public engagement” recommends a two-way approach. Leaving aside the ideological, political and sociological reasons for participating in public communication of research, let’s look at how public communication can benefit your research. Public communication can:

  • Make your research more responsive and actionable Research is a complex process-- especially in fields closely related to human lives, like medicine or climate science-- and researchers may not fully understand all the social and environmental factors that may affect their work. Discussions with patient groups or local disaster-response teams, for example, can help researchers confirm assumptions or discover issues that might need further investigation. Also, not everyone follows research news, even in fields that may have a significant impact on their lives. By reaching out and engaging the public in conversations related to your work, you can help bring new results to those audiences who may be directly affected by them.
  • Help measure the impact of your research Researchers are now acknowledging that the traditional metrics of measuring impact of research –– citations –– are not particularly meaningful in the modern age, where content may be consumed over the web, discussed via social media and written about in blogs. Alternative metrics are now being given their due. By being part of the conversation using the tools the web has made available, you can increase the impact of your research and also measure the audiences it reaches.
  • Ensure your research has sustained support and funding This is a slightly more self-centred reason, but your brightest ideas may not see the light of day without the funding to back your work. In a democratic society, an engaged public plays a crucial role in determining funding policies for research. Engagement can help you reach out to interested groups and cultivate new connections. Furthering public interest in research benefits not just science as a whole, but also your own endeavours.

You can lend your voice to public communication of research in a variety of ways. You might organize public visits to your research facility or laboratory, or hold public demonstrations of research technologies and methods. Consider speaking at a local school about research practice in general, to inspire future researchers. Or you could work with teachers on developing school curricula. You can reach remote audiences on the web, by blogging about your research and its ups and downs, by discussing your subject on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, or even hosting your own YouTube channel.

Citizen-science initiatives such as Zooniverse invite active partiicpation and bring research into people’s homes –– find out how you can crowd-source your latest data collection or analysis. And you might engage with local politicians, members of industry, artists, and museums to discuss possible collaborations on public events, exhibitions, etc. You will likely find the possibilities very rewarding!