Public engagement: hidden costs for research careers?

Richard Watermeyer:

It is often assumed that academics’ efforts to engage the public are inherently a good thing.

The Public Understanding of Science movement has long backed the idea that the public must be included in science governance if science is to achieve openness, transparency and accountability, and that this approach helps to preserve public trust and confidence in science, or restore it where it has been lost or fractured.

Over the years, there has been a shift in emphasis from communication and understanding to dialogue and debate, captured by the term “public engagement”. This has come to symbolise a wider shift in higher education from universities as “ivory towers” to universities as transparent, porous, public institutions. Public engagement is touted by its advocates as a means with which to mobilise and empower the public and academe through a two-way relationship of trust, respect and interdependency, leading to collaboration and even co-production. These are honourable ambitions, which the academic community would do well to be guided by.