It is no joke to get the public more involved in research

An expedition out of the lab and down to the pub can benefit science and society

On a Friday night
visit to your local pub, you might be surprised if you found a group of
researchers entertaining a lively crowd with a stand-up routine.

But this is exactly what you will see if you come to The Bright Club, a comedy night established by University College London, where staff and students deliver their jokes while sharing their research with sell-out audiences. This might sound unusual, but it is just one of the many non-academic ways universities and researchers engage with the public.

Because research is publicly funded, it is important people are aware of where that investment is made and how it has an impact on their lives and the UK’s prosperity. But the benefit is reciprocal. Telling jokes and other forms of direct engagement also bring valuable input.

Some of the excellent research that is taking place today relies on the direct engagement of the public to refine ideas, gather data and, of course, to develop the curiosity of the next generation.

Researchers are excellent role models for young people and can play a key role in motivating students and raising ambitions. A survey of more than 1,000 scientists carried out for the Royal Society showed slightly more than half had been influenced in their career choice by a visit to a scientist’s or engineer’s place of work; and nearly a quarter had been influenced by a scientist or engineer visiting their schools.

Dr Michael Pocock, a research fellow at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has encouraged and supported thousands of school children to work with him.

They gather conker tree leaves to find out what type of insects emerge.

They post their findings online to answer important questions about the biology of these insects. He says: “I think it is vital to engage with others about my research. One really effective way of doing this is to ask them to join in and do the research. I believe that it is really important to communicate to people the importance of research in our environment.

The other thing is that this type of engagement is great fun.” The centre has also developed a smartphone app so anyone can get involved in the research by photographing samples and sending them in directly.

At Research Councils UK (RCUK), we believe engaging the public with research should be part of every researcher’s ambitions. In partnership with the Higher Education Funding Councils and the Wellcome Trust, we invested in the beacons for public engagement. These are university- based collaborative centres set up to support, reward and build capacity for public involvement with research. The project is engaging thousands of people across the UK with research in immediate ways.

RCUK is working with the other funders to create a culture that prioritises public engagement. A concordat for engaging the public with research was launched at the end of 2010 to emphasise the opportunities across all disciplines. The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) Engage 2011 conference, in Bristol on 29 and 30 November, will be a great for learning more about public involvement.

For the researchers, engaging with the public builds skills that are useful in all walks of life and enriches personal and professional experience. It may also improve their comic timing.

More information about RCUK’s support for public engagement is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk/per For more information about the NCCPE and Engage 2011, visit www.publicengagement.ac.uk

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