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Article: Scientists’ public engagement work should be generously funded

Clare Matterson, director of medical humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust has written a short piece for the Guardian on public engagement. Extracts below. To read this article in full go HERE.

Scientists’ public engagement work should be generously funded

Public engagement as a practice is nothing new. In the UK, it dates back to Michael Faraday’s public lectures at the Royal Institution (which proved so popular that hansom cabs blocked Albemarle Street, where the RI is located, leading to the creation of one of the first ever one-way streets). In the past two decades public engagement has moved away from just telling people how wonderful science is to exploring the social and ethical implications of scientific research and, importantly, listening to them. Nowadays, there are countless science festivals, public debates, science-art collaborations and “citizen science” projects.

Public engagement is a profession in its own right now, too. There are probably thousands of people in the UK who see their main line of work as “engaging the public”. But what about scientists themselves – do they (or should they) leave it to the professionals? Too often, public engagement is viewed as a “bolt-on” to a scientist’s work. Even Dame Nancy Rothwell – an eminent neuroscientist who has done far more than her fair share of public talks and events (and encouraged other scientists to) – has referred to science communication as her “hobby”.

At the Wellcome Trust, time and again we hear of researchers being told by seniors in their department not to get distracted by this public engagement lark – “Funders only care how many Nature papers you’ve got under your belt, not how much public engagement you’ve done.” This may have been partly our fault. Our research grants, while not profligate, are generous enough to enable scientists to investigate some of our greatest challenges, such as the role our genes play in cancer and new ways to tackle malaria, but we also expected that any associated public engagement activities should come out of this budget. This may have sent out mixed messages: yes, do public engagement, but don’t expect any money for it.

If we are to move public engagement from being a “nice-to-do” activity to an integral part of research, then we need to ensure that the money is available. We need to put our money where our mouth is. This is why we are now putting aside a pot of money equivalent to up to 1% a year of our overall spend on research – up to £4.5m – from which our researchers can request money for their public engagement activities. The funding will be ring-fenced; in other words, if we award it for public engagement, it must be used for public engagement. This funding will enable those with the enthusiasm for public engagement to deliver their ideas properly. We will also provide access to resources and training to help them develop new skills and ensure the quality of the engagement.

The Wellcome Trust prides itself on funding first-class research, and recognises that this cannot be done on a shoestring. If we also want our researchers to do first-class engagement, we should not expect them to do so with the coppers left over from their research grant. You wouldn’t expect to go to a West End theatre to see a musical whose score is played by an amateur pianist or where the sets are made out of old cornflake boxes. So why shouldn’t we be equally dissatisfied it the science event we attend is of poor quality? (The Great Brain Experiment would not have been a success if it looked like a glorified game of Pong.)

But this is about more than giving out money. It’s about sending a clear, unambiguous message to our researchers about the value we place on engagement. No researcher worth his or her salt – or at least their funding – goes throughout their career without publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals; it is an essential component of research. So it should be with public engagement. Our message now must be: “We fund the brightest minds with the best ideas and the best public engagement.”

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