Public engagement is a ‘buzzword’ now in academic research in a great range of disciplines. But it is much more than the latest fad, or something that can be seen as an optional extra, it is a formal requirement from funders and institutions. There are guidelines and policy documents from organisations like the Research Councils UK (which has signed the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research) (the Economic and Social Research Council is funding this research), VITAE (organisation supporting the professional development of researchers), the Health Research Authority and INVOLVE, and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE, which seeks to support universities to embed engagement into their work). This makes a lot of sense, as publicly funded research should be transparent, accountable and – crucially – of some use or benefit to the public.
What does public engagement mean in the fourth wave of the Care Pathways and Outcomes study?
Public engagement activities include not only the traditional one-way forms of engagements, such as delivering conference presentations and public lectures, but also writing on social media platforms, taking part in debates, working with schools, involving and consulting the public, and co-production of research.
At the initial stages of our study, we held public consultations with a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland regarding the themes that should be incorporated in the questionnaires and interviews with our participants. Then, after modifying our data collection instruments taking into account the result of this engagement, we had meetings with our advisory groups to further refine these methods, as well as to seek their advice and collaboration in recruiting the participants. We have established three main advisory groups: a parent and carer advisory group, which comprises a group of foster and kinship carers, and a group of adoptive parents; a young people advisory group, which comprises a group of care experienced young people, and a group of adopted young people; and a professional advisory network, which has three strands: a policy and practice strand (with representatives of voluntary and statutory organisations, as well as local government institutions), an external academic strand (with leading international academics in the field), and our academic colleagues in Queen’s University Belfast. We are deeply grateful to all our advisors, who are actively supporting the progress of the study. We have now reached the point of piloting our research instruments with the young people in our advisory group. The reality is that the research would not be possible without the support of external partners.
“Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit”. In our study, we inform each other, thus the advisory group members inform and will continue to inform us throughout the research, and we inform and will continue to inform them. At later stages, we plan to disseminate and discuss the study findings with the wider public, through our social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, blog, and website, with infographics and videos), as well as public conferences and workshops.
Why do we need and want to engage?
There are plenty of reasons for and benefits of public engagement, and this has been acknowledged by numerous organisations. Here are some examples:
- It improves the quality of the research and makes it more relevant, generating results that are more likely to be useful and of benefit to the public.
- It challenges assumptions, produces unexpected outcomes, and increases creativity and innovation, with the introduction of fresh perspectives and lateral insights.
- It builds trust and mutual understanding:
“Over three quarters of the public agree that ‘we ought to hear about potential new areas of science and technology before they happen, not afterwards’. Engagement creates space for trust and understanding to grow, at a time when deference to authority and professional expertise is decreasing.”
- It improves the ethical conduct of the research. For instance, it helps to define what is acceptable to participants. It also ensures that participants receive the information they want and need, presented in a clear and accessible way, and in a manner that reflects their interests and concerns.