Public Engagement 2.0: Ready to take it seriously?


Scientific progress has undoubtedly being fed by singular individuals. Those who have pushed the boundaries driven by endless curiosity aiming to understand how the world surrounding us works. Mankind regards Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin or Marie Curie (among others) as unique minds that have contributed to shape the understanding of the world we live on. However, their lives are often associated to isolation. Science has classically been seen as an ivory tower until recently when a new concept emerged (especially in Anglo-Saxon countries). It was the necessity of communicating scientific progress to a broader audience.

The British National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement defines Public engagement (PE) as the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is, by definition a two-ways process involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit. Over the last years, PE has been expanding in such a way that nowadays we can surely classify PE based on a specific purpose rather than the specific activity to be carried out. Still, and despite its growth 50% of PE activities at higher education institutions are carried out by only 5% of scientist. A reasonable explanation for this may be the load of both research and teaching tasks people working in academia have to endure throughout the early years of their professional careers. Nevertheless, major changes are likely to be seen in the near future, specially given that most science funding agencies in both US and Europe are currently asking scientists to describe the PE actions they will get committed to in order to publicise their research to a wider audience. This is quite reasonable given that a society engaged with scientific progress is prone to fund its development through the taxes they pay to their governments, as it is the case of United Kingdom. A question related to this may be whether those efforts are facilitated and valued by an institution when PE could interfere the priorities of teaching and research.

In a recent paper1 by Ian M. Devonshire and Gareth J. Hathway entitled Overcoming the Barriers to Greater Public Engagement, and published in the community page section in PLoS Biology*, they try to address these issues. In essence, they propose a model of PE for higher education institutions aiming to encourage researchers to participate in PE whilst also addressing the call by the American Association for the advancement of Science to improve undergraduate and undergraduate students’ ability to communicate science to diverse audience. This model is called BrainLab and its central features include (a) the integration of a science communication course into the undergraduate Study Program, (b) the delivery of science workshops by academics and undergraduate students in local schools and (c) the collection of data for use by academics in basic research .

The idea is to embody an eight-month science communication course into the undergraduate study programme, which may serve as the “honour year” project accounting for a 40% of their final year grade. Students are trained to prepare and deliver a 90-minute neuroscience workshop tailored to scholars aged 9-10 years. The students are responsible for leading their workshop helped by supporting fellow students as well as the academic in charge, who conducts an introductory session before the actual workshop takes place.

The academics benefit from an already established network of schools participating in the BrainLab program, as well as the advantage of no additional time being expended above their required teaching loads.

In their opinion, the model benefits all parties involved by popularizing science in early stage school students while undergraduates gain skills and experience that improve their future employment prospects. Finally, academics benefit from both teaching credit and valuable research data that can be published in peer review journals.

Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of BrainLab is the possibility of gaining new knowledge by conducting research in areas such as pedagogy and neuroeducation. The latter discipline has emerged as a new exciting research field where both educators and neuroscientist work together in order to make teaching methods more efficient. Devonshire and Hathway give a good example on their report, where they explore whether learning games involving risk-taking contribute to memory retention.

In their study, each undergraduate student (final year neuroscience students) gives a talk three times to three different groups of pupils aged 9-10 (UK Year 5) with identical scientific content. In the first group (risk group), after announcing the possibility of winning a prize, scholars are given a certain amount of tokens and are asked to bet on answers to multiple-choice science questions delivered throughout the talk. If right, they double the amount of tokens whilst loosing them if wrong. The second group had the same arrangement, but with no prize or tokens involved (no risk group). Finally, pupils on the third group where not given questionnaire (control group).

To assess memory retention, participants from all three groups (150 scholars for each condition) took a science quiz one week later and answers were scored separately. All the analysis and statistics had to be done by the neuroscience students involved in BrainLab as part of their training. Interestingly, they found a significant increase on quiz scores for the “risk” group when compared to both “no risk” and “control” groups (Kruskal-Wallis with Dunn’s post hoc test, n=291, p<0.01). Although the potential of risk-based learning games had been shown before, it is somehow surprising that no one did such study before in a controlled manner. Accordingly, the authors have recently published in PLoS ONE a comprehensive description from the whole study2.

Beside the impact of their findings, it is somehow encouraging to realize that public engagement doesn’t have to be an activity just driven by the enthusiasm and passion from a bunch of scientists who love to share their research. It can be a powerful tool to inspire “potential” future brilliant scientist as well as another way for scientist working in academia to further improve both their publication and teaching record.

*The PLoS Biology Community Page section is a forum for organizations and societies to highlight their efforts to enhance the dissemination and value of scientific knowledge.


  1. Devonshire IM, Hathway GJ: Overcoming the barriers to greater public engagement. PLoS Biol 2014; 12: e1001761.
  2. Devonshire IM, Davis J, Fairweather S et al: Risk-based learning games improve long-term retention of information among school pupils. PLoS One 2014; 9: e103640.

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