Dr Christina Pagel

My journey through the five steps of public engagement: an academic's story


Dr Christina Pagel, Reader in Operational Research, University College London (UCL)

Date: 17 November 2017

I was an experienced academic but a communications novice. Research funders are always asking applicants about “path to impact”, “dissemination” and to ensure they demonstrate “public engagement”.

I really wanted to achieve all those things in my recent NIHR-funded project but had no idea where to start. My head was full of catchy buzzwords but no concrete practical steps for what to actually do!

Luckily I had the charity Sense about Science to help me, and together we worked with the public to develop a new website as part of our PRAIS 2 study to help people understand how the NHS monitors children’s heart surgery.

Following that project, Sense about Science and NIHR have just released Public engagement: a practical guide, a new best practice guide for researchers on how to involve the public in communicating their research. This little booklet is packed full of detailed golden nuggets of how-to tips for researchers across all disciplines. I’ve written previously about how my experience of working on this website changed me as an academic. Now I’m reflecting on how each of the guide’s five steps helped to shape the children's heart surgery project.


Noticing how children’s heart surgery statistics were communicated in the press had made me want to develop the website in the first place – so you could say that the scoping part of this project was actually done before even applying for grant funding. I was worried that there was a lack of understanding about how survival statistics are adjusted for severity of illness and whether people understood what at an “expected survival rate” actually means. Such misunderstandings had previously led to misleading and alarmist headlines in the media on an emotive subject.


Who to involve? We wanted to reach people responsible for translating official reports into information for parents and the public - and that meant journalists, science writers and press officers. Secondly, we knew we needed to listen to parents of children who had undergone heart surgery, but were unsure of whether this should be through “representative groups” such as charities – or whether we should approach the parents directly? With Sense about Science’s advice, we took the latter route, working with the Children’s Heart Federation charity to help find parents willing to help.

Asking parents directly turned out to be really important – consistently they came up with ideas and reactions that the media and communications professionals had not raised. For instance, the parents suggested several improvements to the content of the supporting animations and told us we needed to explain who we were and why we were doing this to demonstrate trustworthiness.

One of the most important things they told us was that we needed to say what the information on the website did not show or could not help with – and then to signpost other online resources which could answer their questions.


As the guide makes clear – step 3 and 4 are closely linked. We always knew we wanted to create a website but originally we planned a small site that just explained the output of the annual national audit report as an annotated graph with some accompanying text. When we first shared material in the workshops, it quickly became obvious that the audit output was not the best starting point because it involved quite complex maths just to explain the axes of the charts. So we decided to develop our own graphical version of the audit results, which required new explanations and more rounds of feedback.

Further workshops showed us that we needed extensive background material and “follow on material”, to put the charts in context so they made sense to people. As the website grew in size and scope, it became unnavigable and we had to rethink the whole structure from scratch to ensure it was accessible. Sitting down with people in our workshops to watch how they navigated the site, and listening to their feedback was invaluable – it really did transform the whole look and feel of the final version. 


Sense about Science really did hold my hand for this bit – I had no experience of thinking about launching anything. Up until then, dissemination to me basically meant publishing an academic paper! I learned a lot about the power of blogs and well-crafted tweets to promote the work, and about the importance of including different peoples’ perspectives. Publishing blogs by me, Sense about Science and a parent from one of the workshops showed different perspectives of the work and reached overlapping but different audiences.

*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.

***Want to learn more about the five steps? Read our blog written by Sense about Science Communications Officer Anastasia Skamarauskas


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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    Christina Pagel writes about how public engagement played a vital role in her flagship research into creating a children's heart surgery survival website.
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    Dr Christina Pagel, Reader in Operational Research, University College London (UCL)

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