In 2018, we conducted a short online survey to capture the thoughts and strategies of individuals and organisations involved in public engagement with research in the UK. We asked them about their future involvement in public engagement and citizen science. We received over 70 replies and we share some of our findings in this and subsequent posts. Clearly there are a fantastic number of projects and events aimed at engaging communities and citizens with environmental and scientific research. It’s therefore vital that we understand the challenges facing public engagement and the barriers to involvement in citizen science projects.

Who responded

Our respondents who were a mixture of university researchers, practitioners, NGOs, policy teams, public engagement support teams and community groups worked in areas as diverse as marine and coastal research, natural hazards, bird-watching, public health and well-being, bio-nanotechnology, rivers, natural history, housing, wildlife and habitats, and litter, among numerous others.

Their engagement activities included
  • events such as public lectures, science festivals, art-science speed-dating, exhibitions, or shows
  • communication through publications, radio, TV, as well as dance or art projects
  • co-production of research, citizen science, resource or research dissemination, and consultancy

Our survey said

TEN key challenges and barriers to public engagement and citizen science work were identified:

1. Funding

This was the most common challenge highlighted in the responses to our survey. People mentioned the availability and continuity of funding as a key issue, both in terms of salaries and resources. Funding is often equated to time, and so increasing the amount of public engagement work undertaken has an impact on that person’s involvement in other projects or work (e.g. teaching), sometimes requiring access to a different funding stream. Being able to allocate time and specific funding to such work would enable researchers to be more readily involved with public engagement and citizen science projects.

2. Engagement

As the second most common issue,  engagement is a key challenge when thinking about public engagement. There were a number of different issues at play, including:

  • Academic Engagement: Some responses recognised that some researchers are better at engaging wider audiences whilst some are better at engaging academic communities
  • Community Engagement: There was a difference in opinion with regard to the approaches to engagement aimed at different stakeholders and communities
  • ‘Genuine’ Engagement: A number of responses highlighted the difficulty of fostering long-term public engagement. This raises questions not only about what we might mean by genuine engagement, but also requires some thought about how projects can move beyond the inclusion of ‘passive’ roles of the public to fostering an active and productive involvement.
  • Audience: There may be some difficulty in identifying target audiences for public engagement projects, and engaging with wider audiences was often highlighted as a challenge (particularly among non-academic audiences).
  • ‘Interest’: Some communities may not seem ‘interested’ or are not typically involved in environmental science research (including BAME communities, people with autism, prisoners, refugees, homeless, victims of domestic violence and other disadvantaged or marginalised groups), and as such respondents felt it was important to engage with these groups and focus on their empowerment and encouraging their involvement.

3. Time

There is a difficulty in balancing public engagement activities with other demands (such as teaching, or other projects or research), particularly given the amount of time required to plan and undertake successful projects. In the survey, time issues were also linked to funding issues, a lack of resources, and the lack of recognition given to public engagement endeavours.

4. Recognition

Management, the scientific community, community groups and government bodies were noted as often undervaluing public engagement work, with involvement more likely where a direct relevance to the individual or organisation is perceived. In order to remove this barrier, some responses highlighted the importance of building trust, and demonstrating how citizen science or another form of public engagement is an appropriate approach.

5. Data quality for citizen science

For citizen science projects to be successful, respondents highlighted that the right data needs to be collected, meaning that projects require people with the right skills, as well as the opportunity and willingness to volunteer their time. As government bodies require high quality data, both data collection and data analysis can become a challenge for citizen science projects, again often linked to funding issues.

6. Communication

This factor covered a number of issues, with communications between academic and non-academic stakeholders highlighted as a barrier, as well as communicating project results and understanding stakeholder knowledge. In particular, respondents noted the difficulty in networking in order to communicate and connect with others on future projects.

7.Volunteers for citizen science

As we mentioned briefly, finding people with the right skills can be a challenge for citizen science. Some respondents found that the availability, number, and competition for volunteers was an issue, as well as ensuring consistent participation. These too were linked to a lack of funding.

7. Capacity and skills

There is a particular difficulty in finding people that have experience and ability to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences, particularly regarding methodologies. Similarly, recruiting people with specialist skills, such as web design, was shown to be an issue.

8. Case studies

Some responses noted the difficulty of finding good examples of similar or relevant projects, in order to understand best practice and share information. This was seen as largely due to the proliferation of initiatives and projects with some difficulty in streamlining or filtering these

9. Expectations

Managing expectations for all involved individuals and organisations can be a challenge, both in terms of the activities themselves and the resultant outputs.

In summary

This survey has highlighted a number of key issues facing individuals and organisations wishing to become involved in, or to further, their public engagement and citizen science work.

  1. Challenges such as a lack of funding have wide reaching effects on public engagement and citizen science work, affecting data collection and analysis, volunteer involvement and retention, and importantly the time allocated to such projects.
  2. We need to think about what we mean by genuine engagement, and how projects can foster long-term public engagement.
  3. We may also want to think about what we mean by successful research, how public engagement and citizen science work is perceived by different communities and organisations, and to perhaps think about what it might mean to truly ‘value’ such work.
  4. Finally, the survey answers have highlighted the need to think about the role of empowerment in public engagement work, how (marginalised) communities can be empowered through such projects, and how public engagement can be positioned to reach wide and varied audiences.

The project team thank all those who participated in this survey.