Anastasia Skamarauskas, Sense about Science

Five steps to help you involve the public in communicating research


Anastasia Skamarauskas, Communications Officer, Sense about Science

Date: 10 November 2017

Involve the public. And involve them early. This is the message at the heart of Public engagement: a practical guide. It draws on our experience of partnering with researchers for over a decade to engage with the public on difficult and sensitive issues. 

In 2016 we worked with NIHR funded researchers from the PRAIS 2 study to communicate children’s heart surgery unit statistics clearly and accurately and present them through an online resource that parents of children with heart conditions could use. The guide uses this project as a case study throughout.

Aren’t some issues just too difficult? 

We hear this question often at Sense about Science, but we have yet to find an issue that was too complex, sensitive or polarised to involve the public. In fact when issues are one or all of those things, working with the public on how to communicate research can help you identify areas of misunderstanding or potential misinterpretation. When we worked with the PRAIS 2 team we used this five-step process to help them discuss and present research information in a way that is shaped from the outset by people who will use it...


Look at how your topic of research is being discussed to scope out what is being said in news media, public statements and on websites, social media, blogs and forums; and where relevant in advertising, policy documents or reports. This gives a picture of where people are starting from when they engage with the issue, and also where you might find the people you need to engage. Be open minded about who the audience is; it may not be a topic that has mass appeal but makes a significant difference to the group it is relevant to. Equally, high energy particle physics may not spring to mind as research the public cares about but the broad appeal of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) very much says otherwise.


Scoping the current discussion in step one will have given you a good sense of the audiences who could engage with your research, perhaps beyond the usual voices. The input of the audience you involve is invaluable for developing your resources. Communicating children’s heart surgery unit statistics from the PRAIS 2 study was a particularly sensitive topic and it was essential to work with parents of children with heart conditions to design a website and animations that they would and could use. In this case, a key insight was the need to make it clear from the offset that all of the hospitals were in the acceptable range of patient outcomes. As one parent told us, “I’ve enough to worry about, so if I don’t need to worry about the hospital, tell me straight away”.


What resource is best for your audience (eg website, animation, event) and what information and context is needed? It is here that you start to develop the language and style to connect with your audience. Be clear and honest about the limitations of your research and your project, what it can’t do and what isn’t possible. We worked with the Small Area Health Statistics Unit after they produced The Environment and Health Atlas. It mapped potential environmental agents, such as sunshine or Nitrogen Dioxide (N02) and a range of diseases across England and Wales over a 25-year period. The researchers were very up front about the limitations of the atlas when it came to individual risk and used clear, non-technical language to talk about it. As a result they avoided misunderstanding and sensational headlines.


We strongly advocate meeting people to work with them in the development of your communication tools and plans. This will take several iterations as you develop resources based on feedback but these workshops in the children’s heart surgery project made a profound difference to the output and transformed the way the researchers as well as the participants approached the issues. For example, preference for survival rates as opposed to mortality rates can be identified at this stage. Allowing user input to shape the resource you create can give the users as well as the audience a sense of ownership over the project that makes a big impact on the next stage.


Allowing people ownership is an important part of getting them to share it, which can be an invaluable tool in spreading wider understanding and information. In general this stage is best thought out towards the end of the project, but well before it’s finished.

Our guide fleshes out these stages with practical advice and examples from our projects. We want people to be able to understand and scrutinise the research they come across. So it makes sense to involve the public from the off in shaping how findings are presented. Now our guide gives researchers the tools to do just that.

*Read the guide in full on the Sense about Science website. Information on PRAIS 2 is available on the NIHR Journals Library website where the guide is also available under the impact section.

**There is also further information on the NIHR website about how researchers can manage their study and best incorporate dissemination in their work

***More information about Sense about Science is available on their website, or follow them at @senseaboutsci on Twitter, or email

**** Want to learn more about the five steps? Read our blog written by PRAIS 2 study chief investigator Dr Christina Pagel.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.
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    Anastasia Skamarauskas from Sense about Science unveils new best practice guidance for researchers on involving the public in how to communicate findings.
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    Anastasia Skamarauskas, Communications Officer, Sense about Science

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