Public Engagement

January 01, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


The idea of “public engagement with (or ‘in’) science” has multiple origins, and with those origins come different assumptions about what the goals of engagement are, how they can be achieved, and how they can be assessed. Many discussions about public engagement may be unaware of the multiple meanings, losing much of the complexity inherent in the topic. In a 2014 article, Bensaude-Vincent argued that “public engagement” is a buzzword that succeeds because it allows multiple stakeholders to rally together despite sometimes conflicting goals.

Two meanings of public engagement are most common: “engagement” as an aspect of learning, and “engagement” as part of participatory democracy (including public participation in scientific research, or citizen science). While there are clear links between these ideas (most notably through the works of (John Dewey 1916, 1938) and of the Brazilian educational/political theorist Paolo Freire (Freire, Freire, & Macedo, 1998)), most practitioners and even many scholars may be unaware of those links. A third meaning of interest to many practitioners, but often missed by scholars, is “institutional” engagement.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Educational engagement

Although the term “public engagement” as it relates to science emerged from scholars, activitists, and scholar/activists concerned about issues of public participation in governance of science (House of Lords, 2000), the informal science education community quickly began using the term. The parts of that community more closely tied to the formal educational system instinctively drew on the notion of “engaging students” in learning. The idea of engagement has been used for a long time in the education world, but only in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s did researchers begin to collate the different meanings that “educational engagement” could have. From that collation emerged a complex definition (Appleton, Christenson, & Furlong, 2008), addressing at least four dimensions:

  • Academic engagement
  • Behavioral engagement
  • Emotional/affective/psychological engagement
  • Cognitive engagement

A subset of the engagement idea relates specifically to higher education, and focuses on issues like “quality of effort” and “involvement in productive learning activities” (Kuh 2009). In this context, “the engagement premise is straightforward and easily understood: the more students study a subject, the more they know about it, and the more students practice and get feedback…the deeper they come to understand what they are learning and the more adept they become…” (Kuh 2009, p. 5).

Participatory democracy

Much of the current attention to public engagement in science emerged from a research program in the United Kingdom (Ziman, 1991). That program was stimulated by the 1985 publication of a Royal Society report on Public Understanding of Science, often known as the “Bodmer Report” (Bodmer, 2010Royal Society, 1985). The program included both broad social-survey work on public knowledge of and attitudes towards science (e.g. (Durant, Evans, & Thomas, 1989), modeled on a series of such studies in the United States (see Miller, 1983; for examples, see National Science Board, 1993, 2008), and case studies of interactions of particular publics with scientific and technological knowledge (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).

The public engagement tradition drew from two aspects of contemporary social science: the “administrative” approach, which emphasizes measurement, and the “critical” approach, which emphasizes issues of social power. The case studies spurred by the Bodmer Report, in particular, drew on a long tradition of research and commentary on issues of participatory democracy and community-based action research. Some of the labels used for that work include:

Community-based participatory research

Deliberative democracy

Participatory action research

Participatory democracy

Public engagement

As the term “public engagement” was taken up by the science communication and informal science education community, it came to mean primarily a series of activities focused on fostering interaction between scientists and publics (Rowe & Frewer, 2005), including:

Citizens juries (Note that the term “citizens jury” is a trademarked name in the United States)

Consensus conferences (As of this writing, 3 April 2012, the Wikipedia article to which this link goes is not a strong article)

Science cafes

Science festivals

Science shops

Although many of these activities were inspired by the participatory democracy movement, many people in the science communication and informal science education communities were unaware of the political dimensions of these activities (Lewenstein, 2010; McCallie et al., 2009). In their purest form, participatory mechanisms were intended to transfer power from elites to publics; this is particularly problematic for the scientific community, which has traditionally argued that decisions about science should be entrusted to the expert, scientific community (Jasanoff, 2003,2004a, 2004b, 2005, 2007).

The uncertain meanings of the public participation/public engagement (PP/PE) approach have themselves become a topic of research. For example, Kim (2007) developed a model of “public engagement with a problem or issue related to science” (PEP/IS) that focuses on the links among behavioral engagements, in public settings or educational settings, that address the problem or issue related to science. In another approach, Delgado and colleagues (2011) have identified five “topics of tension”: Why should PP/PE be done? Who should be involved? How should PP/PE be initiated? When is the right time to do it? Where should it be grounded?

Assessments of “public engagement” activities have been made both from the “informal learning” or “science communication” perspective (e.g.,Rowe et al. 2010) and from the participatory democracy perspective (e.g., Fisher 2011, Felt and Fochler 2010). While these assessments provide some evidence of learning, they question the political efficacy of the activities.

Public participation in scientific research

The term “public participation in scientific research” was introduced in 2009 by a working group from the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education ( Bonney et al., 2009). The term was introduced to deal with confusion over “citizen science,” which refers to at least three things: participatory democracy involving science, participation of working scientists in civic issues, and public participation in research. The PPSR term is intended to refer only to the last item. Although many people engaged in PPSR are motivated by concerns about democratic access to scientific knowledge, that constitutes only one strand of the broader PPSR community; for that reason, we list PPSR as a separate type of public engagement. The key element of the CAISE report is a typology of PPSR:

  • Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data
  • Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings
  • Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work

A number of studies have looked at the motivations for participating in citizen science/PPSR activities, as well as the type of learning that occurs there (Trumbull et al. 2000Brossard et al. 2005Raddick et al. 2013). One recurring message is the importance of the activity being “real science” as opposed to an education-oriented activity. In the decade beginning in 2010, more systematic attention to PPSR and its accomplishments is being achieved (Dickinson and Bonney 2012; see also ).

Not all participants in the “citizen science” community consider themselves part of the “PPSR” community, and yet they may consider themselves as part of the “public engagement in science” community. To date, there is not a good summary of the broader citizen science movement. Some of the issues that must be addressed include the place of “DIY,” “hacker,” or “Maker” movements (including the Public Laboratory of Science community).

Institutional engagement

Many types of public engagement are driven by particular institutions (e.g., schools, universities, museums, or community groups). While each of these institutions wishes to contribute to the broader social good, they also seek their own institutional vitality. Thus, queries to institutional staff about the meaning of “public engagement” can yield responses that focus on engagement with the institution itself (Lewenstein, unpublished). Although this meaning of public engagement has not been well-studied, a number of brief articles, newsletter items, and reports highlight the importance of institutions “engaging” with local communities, both to contribute to community well-being and to sustain the institution itself (Garibay, 2011O’Hara & Krusi, 2010Simon, 2010; St. Louis Science Center, 2009; Tatter & Leigh, 2008Wadland, 2011Wilkening, 2009). One proposal for data to gather during a census of museums, for example, explicitly attempts to create an “engagement” indicator (a ratio dividing numbers of visitors, volunteers, customers, outreach and other engagements by relevant, overall community metrics) (White Oak Institute & American Association of Museums, 2011).

Given the importance of institutional engagement for the day-to-day work of many organizations, this type of engagement needs further research.

Assessing engagement

Many engagement activities are evaluated or assessed (Rowe & Frewer 2000). Although many of those assessments are not published in formal outlets, they are increasingly available through newsletters such as the Informal Learning Review and through CAISE’s Informal Commons. However, because of the multiple meanings of engagement, many of these assessments speak past each other, looking at different kinds of issues (Rowe & Frewer 2005Rowe et al. 2008). Few if any assessments seek to understand the interaction between the different kinds of engagement.

Among the issues to be addressed in future research is the relationship of online engagement with physical engagement (for example, what is the relationship between institutional website visits, Facebook “likes” of an institution’s website, visitor counts at the institution, and learning?). There is substantial literature on “engagement” in the online behavior community, though little of it pertains directly to science (but see, for example, Eveland & Dunwoody 199820002002). Some work has also begun to appear on issues linking online engagement with participatory democracy, though again without specific links to science (e.g., Bittle 2009).

National reviews, reports and initiatives on engagement

The last few years has seen a number of national reviews, reports and initiatives with regard to science engagement. These have been variously intended to serve as a prompt for discussion, a review of existing activities, or as evidence to assist government in setting policies for public communication and engagement with science.


In 2010, the Australian government released the “Inspiring Australia: a national strategy for engagement with the sciences” report. The purpose is to establish “a national approach for the communication of science and its benefits to a broad range of stakeholders, including policy makers and the public, to create ‘a scientifically engaged Australia.’” (Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research 2009).

United Kingdom

In 2009, “The challenges for 21st century science: A review of the evidence base surrounding the value of public engagement by scientists” report, prepared for the Science for All Expert Group, was released. It aimed to assess “whether the increasing amount of activity makes a difference to improving the environment for science, and what certainty we might have whether further increasing engagement would further improve the UK‘s scientific environment. This paper reviews the evidence underlying this idea of public engagement, to better model the relationships between scientists and publics shaping science‘s special societal function” (Benneworth 2009).

The British Governments’ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has also commissioned a series of studies looking at public attitude to science in the United Kingdom. These studies, carried out by Ipsos Mori, were conducted in 2000, 2005, 2008 and again in 2011 (Ipsos MORI 2011).

United States

CAISE released a report entitled “Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. A CAISE Inquiry Group Report” in 2009. The report “seeks to serve as a prompt for discussion and exploration of PES in ISE” (McCallie et al. 2009).

Following up on work done in connection with this CAISE report, the Museum of Science in Boston, with funding from the National Science Foundation, collected information on over 200 projects that involved public engagement and convened a workshop of ISE practitioners of public engagement to identify strategic directions for future work within the field. The project case summaries and strategic directions for the field can be found at

Directions for Future Research 

See “Institutional Engagement” section above.


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