Adapted from this Research Involvement and Engagement article
Informing and consulting public groups has long been recognised as vital for good quality research, which is why academics are encouraged to engage communities and seek their input and opinion. To do so, it is essential to ensure that the population groups included are as diverse and as representative of a wide range of society as possible.
The move online – opportunities and challenges
Public Engagement events have traditionally been held in person, making them accessible to a wide range of people from various backgrounds. However, the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 meant that ‘face to face’ engagement activities had to widely cease, and much of it has since moved, and remained, online. Whilst this offers opportunities to reach more people geographically, and can also have benefits in terms of inclusion, there is a risk that certain groups may be excluded on a more local level.
Clare Wilkinson from the UWE Bristol Science Communication Unit, and Milly Farrell, Public Engagement Manager at the University of Oxford, have evaluated three engagement activities at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities (WEH), to better understand the impact of moving events online and participation diversity.
The ongoing issue of inclusivity in public engagement
The Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities (WEH) is a Wellcome Trust funded research centre at the University of Oxford. Its staff specialise in a range of fields, including medical history, medical ethics, psychology, philosophy, and mental health. As part of their work, they investigate some of the big ethical questions of our time, a major theme being rapid technological change.
The WEH seeks to include a broad discussion on its research from a range of demographics, attempting to be as inclusive as possible in its engagement work. The key audiences for its engagement programme were initially identified in the Centre’s public engagement strategy as local Oxfordshire residents, artists and arts communities, research participants and patient groups. However, ensuring the involvement of all these groups can be challenging, as reflected in three pre- and mid-pandemic case studies assessing participants’ views on public health issues. Evidence suggests that inclusivity in public engagement is an ongoing issue, where pre-engaged audiences are often repeatedly involved in events and activities, either through use of existing networks or ineffective reach in terms of advertising.
A shift in the public engagement demographic since the start of the pandemic
Clare and Milly found a distinctive demographic shift in engagement work since the start of the pandemic. Their research has highlighted that there are a range of barriers and complications involved in solely online engagement: children and young people, for example, may not have access to devices from a home setting. Whilst health professionals understandably had time constraints during the pandemic and may not have had opportunities to get involved.
Broadly speaking, online public engagement activities are reliant on access to a digital device with a reliable internet connection and the ability to use this device and supporting technology, but also rest on the assumption that there will be the desire, interest, energy, or time to participate.
The conclusion is that any future online work must address issues around exclusion of some groups. Recognising that a diversity in demographics is key to supporting a diversity of viewpoints, Clare and Milly also assess how and if engagement activities would work in a post-pandemic world, and whether public engagement has the potential to become more inclusive as a result.
A variety of people with a diversity of viewpoints
Moving engagement to a solely online format can create benefits in terms of inclusivity, for example in avoiding the need to travel. Further exploration of potential barriers is crucial to raise public awareness of healthcare research, and to help enable people from all backgrounds to contribute. When engaging online it is also vital to ensure that such research is responsible, relevant, and transparent, and that engagement takes place not only with a variety of people, but also with a diversity of viewpoints.
Read the full article here “A reappraisal of public engagement in Oxford during the pandemic: three case studies”