Participation in research helps engage public with science

Although many academics have developed excellent interactive activities and talks, events aimed at the general public often end up being one-way: academics explain their research or report their results but there is little reciprocal involvement by the public in the actual research process.

Here, Professor Edward Codling, from our School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science, shares his experiences of directly undertaking research at high profile science public engagement events. While focusing on the positive value that both researchers and the public can take from such experiences, we also consider some of the practical drawbacks of this type of approach.


Two-way public engagement with research

Science engagement and communication offers a chance to explain and communicate exciting scientific ideas, inspire and enthuse the next generation of researchers, and overcome or challenge misunderstandings and misinformation. Best practice is to aspire for two-way engagement, where scientists respond to public feedback, and participants can feel part of the scientific process. Citizen science projects have allowed the general public to get directly involved with high profile data collection but this is usually participation as a contributor rather than directly as a study subject. Where the public do take part in scientific studies as subjects, these are usually carefully controlled trials, and participants may not feel engaged, or indeed understand, what is happening within the research study. In the following examples I reflect on our different approaches to combine public engagement with active research participation at high profile science events.

The Z factor

In 2013, Dr Nikolai Bode and I participated in the ZombieLab event at the London Science Museum. To engage the public and interactively explain our research into collective behaviour, we asked participants to become part of a ‘Zombie Horde’ - a fun game which highlighted the emergent behaviour of large human crowds. Alongside this main activity, we also asked participants to take part in a research study using a zombie-themed computer game (which was in fact a proxy scenario for an evacuation event from a building). Importantly, the public could be fully involved with the engagement and science communication elements of our activities without having to take part directly in the research study. Our combined research and engagement activities at ZombieLab were a success: we were able to collect enough data to publish a high profile paper on human behaviour and our science communication work was well received by those who took part and by the Science Museum. Our involvement in ZombieLab was included as a case study in the ‘Inspiration to Engage: Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research’ publication, which showcased the eight most compelling examples of public engagement practice between 2010 and 2013.

Live Science: Emergency! Exit?

We then took part in Live Science, a five-week extended residency, at the London Science Museum. As part of his research project, funded by the AXA Research Fund, Nikolai created three interactive computer games to test how people reacted to different emergency situations. After taking part, participants were given a short one-to-one debrief explaining the wider relevance of the research. A crucial difference to ZombieLab was that we could only fully engage and communicate with participants if they actively took part in the research study. While the residency was highly successful, with over 2,000 museum visitors taking part, it was a challenge to both undertake the research and fully engage with members of the public simultaneously.

Dana Centre: Mindless mobs or Smart Swarms?

Our aim at this public science event was to run a series of different human crowd experiments with several hundred participants taking part simultaneously. This event was certainly the most logistically challenging we undertook and the difficulties in simultaneously managing experimental protocols and large crowds of visitors meant that the data was not as high quality as we wanted, although we did publish one paper from the event. Meanwhile, participant feedback revealed that many were frustrated about not knowing what was going on as the event was occurring (this was necessary to avoid biasing the experiments), although most were more positive after a final group debrief at the event’s end.

Maths of Cows

Since 2013 we have also been delivering an interactive activity for schoolchildren and the public, Maths of Cows, based on our ongoing cow tracking research project. Although participants get hands-on and wear the tracking sensors we use in our research study, the activity is purely for fun and we can focus solely on communicating the science behind the research. Not having to worry about research data collection has made communication and engagement easier at the national Big Bang (2014 and 2015) and various other events.

Professor Edward Codling explaining tracking sensors during the Maths of Cows activity at London’s Science Museum.
Professor Edward Codling explaining tracking sensors during the Maths of Cows activity at London’s Science Museum.


Reflections and future approaches

The most success we had combining public engagement with research data collection was with small-scale individual participation and one-to-one engagement. Our least successful event, for both engagement and data collection, involved experiments with large groups of participants. With larger groups of participants issues with data collection, which requires careful control of experimental procedures and instructions, were amplified and hence it may well be better in such cases to only attempt data collection or engagement but not both. Nevertheless, direct public involvement in research can certainly be a success, if there is space for both communication and participation on both sides.