About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Towards a new model of public engagement with research and innovation

As technological change speeds up, we think that it is time for the UK government to take the lead in developing a new model of public engagement in decision-making about research, technology and innovation. We think that the launch of UKRI, and the Sciencewise programme moving into this new body, is a great opportunity to do this as it provides the space to rethink the role that the public should play in shaping science, research and innovation.

To kickstart the debate, Nesta has created seven principles that could guide public engagement with research and innovation in the 21st century. We welcome all comments and suggestions that others have and will update the draft in due course.

The seven principles have been split into four categories - organisation, purpose, participants, methods.

We believe that public engagement should be:


1) Supported by those with the power to change things

In an inclusive society, public engagement should be built into the decision making processes of government, funding bodies and innovators. Yet those in power are often unconvinced by this. A fundamental change of mindset is required by those in power. ‘This way of working is deeply countercultural for organisations, and involves ‘letting go’ of many cherished ways of working,’ Paul Manners, Director for the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement told me.

Idea: Send the UK’s science, research and innovation leaders on a nationwide tour. It is difficult to convince ministers and other leading figures in the world of science, research and innovation of the value and power of public engagement through reports and opinion pieces alone. To address this, a delegation of leaders should follow the example of Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, and go on a nationwide tour, to meet ordinary people and talk about their work on research and innovation with them. They will see that people far away from the halls of power have very sensible, nuanced views when it comes to difficult, technical issues, and it may well convince them of the value of supporting public engagement more than any report ever could. In line with principle seven, this should ideally be facilitated by expert brokers.

Idea: Support learning and development for those in leadership positions in research, funding and regulatory bodies on why and how they can engage the public. A professional development programme for public engagement professionals, similar to the Global Innovation Policy Accelerator collaborative development programme, would enable policymakers to expand their skill sets and develop stronger connections with peers worldwide.

Idea: Appoint ‘public champions’ to funding and regulation bodies, to advise on the most appropriate methods and timings to engage the public, whether that’s a public dialogue or an online debate, a survey or a piece of participatory theatre. Public champions should be skilled mediators, who are experienced in working between communities and policymakers on issues of science, research and innovation.

2) Open to experimentation

Governments rely on a set of tried and tested methods to engage the public and there is little experimentation in the field. For example, almost all public engagement work is done offline, with very little money spent on digital methods. Also, public engagement that is not led by institutions tends to be given less weight in the policymaking process yet evidence shows that more citizen-led approaches, from arts-based engagement to the use social media, can highlight public concerns that are missed by institutional led engagement.

While in many cases the challenge is to embed tried and tested methods of public engagement into the working practices of governments and research funders, these organisations should also support experimental and citizen-led approaches to public engagement. To further support this kind of work, those who engage with the public should ask practitioners to consider how best they can document the impact of their work, as a way to both generate and share lessons for others and to persuade those in positions of power of the value of experimental and citizen-led approaches to public engagement.

Idea: Support the development of a diverse range of public engagement innovators - Governments and research funders should support the development of a diverse range of organisations that are experimenting with innovative and citizen-led approaches to public engagement. One way to do this might be through a public engagement accelerator programme which combines small grants, bespoke support and partnering opportunities for innovators and those who need to engage the public on questions of science, research and innovation.


3) Designed with a clear goal in mind

Engagement should be about shaping priorities and decisions rather than simply a consultation in order to gain the acceptance of the public for a new technology or strategy. Any public engagement initiative should start with a clear set of questions in mind: what do you want to ask, and why? This is important because only with a clear idea about this will you be able to evaluate the process and outcomes properly.

Idea: Develop a public engagement scorecard - all major government investments in research and innovation should be required to clearly state how stakeholders and citizens contributed to the evidence collected for the policymaking process and be scored against a common framework of public participation in policymaking (thanks to Simon Burall from Involve for the inspiration for this idea).

4) Sensible about measures of success

The outputs of public engagement exercises are often reports, which are used to attempt to influence institutional policy. However, public engagement can do much more than this. Just as important as the formal, documented outcomes should be how the process itself influences participants and leads to open and surprising discussions about research and innovation.


5) Targeted at specific audiences and communities not the general public

When trying to engage everyone, initiatives usually end up engaging an interested and motivated group. It’s also really hard to design public engagement interventions that aim to involve a broad, diverse set of people. When trying to do public engagement, you need to be thoughtful about who you’re trying to engage, why, and what that means for how you actually do it. ‘Who are the public?’ is a useful place to start.

One way to target people might be to think about people with different perspectives. For example, public engagement usually seeks to be representative, in terms of the make up of the UK population, but doesn’t often seek to be inclusive in terms of different outlooks, such as political views or optimistic versus pessimistic views about technology.

Idea: Explore how digital tools can be used to promote informed and inclusive debate - The internet offers a huge number of possibilities for public engagement, yet online tools are rarely used to engage the public in discussions and debates about research and innovation. This might be because digital tools usually only manage to engage interested and motivate people and it can be difficult to discuss complex topics in a nuanced way online. Yet digital tools offer a number of potential benefits, from an ability to target specific audiences to allowing more timely engagement on urgent questions. They could also, potentially, allow governments and research funders to engage with many more people than traditional public engagement initiatives and allow organisers to capture and analyse the data in new and interesting ways. Funders should support the use of digital tools in their public engagement work, both through integrating digital tools into traditional engagement exercises, where appropriate, and experimenting with online engagement initiatives.

6) Beneficial for participants

When governments engage the public on a given topic, they should always consider what participants get out of an exercise. Sometimes, that might be about crafting an engaging experience, such as 10:10’s ‘heat seeking quest'. At other times, this could be about trying to empower participants, for example, giving them the skills to act as an intermediary between their communities and policymakers. Models such as community organising are under explored and could be piloted.


7) Informed and facilitated

Most people have probably never had the time or inclination to form an opinion on technical questions, such as ‘how should the government regulate the use of data?’ A survey on this topic might lead to the conclusion that ‘‘the public doesn’t care about what companies do with their data," and yet, informing the public about the potential negative consequences of a data breach might lead to a very different discussion. When professionals engage the public it's important for them to understand the need to dig deeper, to explore different views, to provide information where necessary and then to use judgement to interpret findings.

Public engagement as a path to inclusive innovation

Our former faith in trickle-down innovation is giving way to an understanding that research and innovation need much more inclusive means if they are to yield inclusive ends. Public engagement is an important way to achieve this, and we hope that these principles can contribute to a debate on how the UK can lead the way in developing democratic, responsive, and inclusive research and innovation policy that is up to the task of addressing the needs of society.


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

View profile