“Public engagement is the involvement of experts/specialists in any field listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with, non-specialists such as the general public and students.”( HEFCE, in 2006). This definition is really one that is all encompassing and describes well what has grown from merely a good idea into a culture in the UK. Having spent over 7 years at the University of Leicester, I was privileged enough to be able to capture the growth and expansion of public engagement during this time period through my singular experiences and involvement.
My first experience with public engagement was in my first year at university with the Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence (GENIE), demonstrating genetic techniques to middle school and high school pupils. This was organised on an institutional level with input from many established faculty members. By the time I was completing my time at Leicester, the last public engagement project I was involved with was the Brain Awareness Day, which was largely organised by fellow PhD students. This goes to show the expansion and impact of public engagement, no more was it about institutions reaching out but on an individual level, many scientists were contributing their quota, reaching out and helping students develop scientific ideas.
Fast forward a few years and I am now in Ghana, during an exciting time which I can liken to the early days of public engagement advocacy in the UK. However, the public engagement scene in Ghana has some differences which are hard to miss; less infrastructure, personnel, resources and over-arching coordination but equal drive, passion and need to reach the general public and students. Indeed it creates a dynamic mix of innovation and resourcefulness with networks becoming paramount.
With that been said, the universities are beginning to encourage public engagement activities from researchers and lecturers. Scientists at institutions are beginning to put out their work via less formal channels and are weighing in more and more on matters of public importance. Outside the academic institutions, much more is going on; individuals are setting up initiatives to encourage student innovations and NGO’s are running projects to promote public engagement. An example of such a project is one I personally have a hand in; the Shaping Healthy Attitudes and Protecting the Environment (SHAPE) project which is being implemented by GhScientific in collaboration with the Ghana Science Association and with funding from the Wellcome Trust. The project is bringing together students, teachers, undergraduates, researchers and science professionals in a way that has never happened within the country. By the time it wraps up in 2017, public engagement would have experienced nothing short of a growth spurt. Indeed, these are exciting times to be a scientist passionate about communicating what you do.