Engaging the public in research for a better future

Dr Niall Smith, Head of Research (Cork) and Head of Blackrock Castle Observatory MTU discusses the importance of engaging the public in research. Dr Smith is organising a prestigious international science conference in Cork this week
Engaging the public in research for a better future

Dr Niall Smith. Picture Darragh Kane

RESEARCH is all too often perceived as being something of an academic pursuit, distanced from the hopes and concerns of the average citizen and largely conducted by anonymous individuals in white coats with limited social skills. This perception is both inaccurate and misleading, but perceptions matter and if we are to achieve the outcomes we desire from the money we spend on research we have to start doing a much better job at fixing mis-perceptions. (There are plenty more, but that’s for another discussion.)

Enter the Government’s “Creating Our Future” initiative, a campaign to involve people who don’t usually wear white coats or work in laboratories, to ask them what topics they think research should mostly focus on to create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.  During August-November of 2021 a massive 18,062 people and groups submitted their views online or through in-person events, providing a wealth of rich information rarely, if ever captured elsewhere in such large numbers. Participants ranged in age from 16 to over 90 and came from all 26 counties. Submissions were limited to a maximum of 420 characters and 41% contained 10 words or less.

I was privileged to be part of an Expert Committee of nine individuals from diverse research backgrounds tasked with making sense of the huge volume of submissions, to generate a report which would capture the hopes and concerns, ideas and innovations of the Irish people. 

Ultimately, the campaign hoped to influence future policies targeted at the way research is funded and reported, making the value chain from initial idea to final impact one which is transparent and applicable to our small nation in a meaningful way. We had the assistance and advice of almost 100 other experts to help sift through, collate, debate and categorise the data. This was not simply an exercise in ranking the popularity of an idea. 

As expected, many Irish people are concerned about health and about climate change, so the number of submissions dealing with these topics was large. But we were also looking for insights from people that nobody had thought of before – by definition these won’t appear many times due to their uniqueness and yet they might catalyse research that will have massive unpredictable benefits to us all. We were so concerned that we might miss some good ideas or categorize ideas poorly that we used three different independent ways to analyse the submissions. We spent thousands of person-hours in discussions and the equivalent in terms of analyses we completed using computer algorithms.

So what did we find when we had analysed the data? The answer can be summarised in five key findings (though it’s impossible to do justice to the full richness of the report in so few words)

1. Solutions for the future cannot be developed in silos. We have to work collectively to solve the complex problems which face us.

2. Accelerated research is needed to address mental health and infectious diseases.

3. Researchers should focus on bespoke solutions that take account of our unique geography, heritage and culture for the benefit of all citizens.

4. Irish research needs to be at the cutting edge of digital technologies to make sure they’re used for a more inclusive and fairer society.

5. Research is required to harness the power of local communities, of all scales.

Has the campaign influenced national research policies? In short, yes. The new National Research and Innovation Strategy – Impact 2030 - makes specific references to the recommendations of our report, with commitments that the views of the public will be better integrated into our research ecosystem. 

The establishment of an independent Research Advisory Council is an important step and will assist the funding agencies, who fund much of Ireland’s public research, to develop new programmes that better address the concerns and aspirations of us all. With the prospect of a better two-way dialogue between researchers and the public closer than ever before, we are on the cusp of some exciting developments.

Later this week our report will be officially published by Minister Simon Harris. It’s also the same week that Munster Technological University is hosting the EUSEA Science Engagement Conference (July 6 and 7) with the title “Let’s Co-Create the Future!”. The title is not coincidental and the theme of the conference was specifically chosen to focus on co-creating the future, although the timing of the publication of our report could hardly be better. With 120 participants from across Europe, there is sure to be a diverse range of cultural, economic and environmental perceptions feeding into a vibrant discussive atmosphere.

ABOUT THIS WEEK’S CONFERENCE

The EUSEA Science Engagement Conference is in partnership with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and MTU. For more details and the full programme see eusea.info/eusea2022. The 2022 EUSEA (European Science Engagement Association) Conference, which helps to shape the future of science communication in Europe, has attracted more than 120 science engagement professionals from 15 countries to the city and is worth almost €250,000 to the local economy.

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