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.

What are the greatest challenges facing the world today? The UK government, in its industrial strategy, focuses on mobility, clean growth, ageing and growing the machine learning and data-driven economy.

Research and innovation in these areas will affect all of our lives and yet the people involved in designing, funding and regulating these technologies come from remarkably similar backgrounds. Here are just two statistics: only 15 per cent of scientists come from working class backgrounds; and in the US, children from the top 1 per cent of richest families (by income) are ten times as likely to have filed for a patent as those from families in the bottom half of the income distribution.

So why should researchers, innovators and those whose jobs it is to regulate technology engage with people who aren’t like them on topics like research and innovation?

  1. To give those in power a broader range of potential futures to aspire to - Innovators are expert storytellers, they have awfully loud voices and their visions of the future are rarely challenged by the media. The stories that innovators tell shape the laws that politicians pass, the funding they make available and the rules they design to govern new technologies. Public engagement can offer policymakers alternative, more inclusive sets of narratives to aspire to.
  2. To encourage researchers and policymakers to think about broader social, political and ethical issues - ‘AI is empowerment’, announced Google, as it launched its automated call centre software, which could disrupt an industry that employs around one million people in the UK. Innovators can often neglect the wider social impacts of their work, which is why public engagement can be a useful corrective. Because when the public get a chance to tell experts what they think about science and innovation funding, through public dialogues for example, they express strong views about the need to prevent negative effects of innovation, from job losses to a loss of privacy. Governments need to get much better at planning to address the disruption that innovation can bring, and public engagement can help them do this.
  3. To improve research and innovation - Innovators are overwhelmingly male and are also likely to be from predominantly wealthy backgrounds. Theories of collective intelligence and cognitive diversity show that more diverse groups are better at solving problems. This lack of diversity also means that researchers often focus on solving the problems of people like them. Research and innovation hold many promises, but its exclusivity may be holding them back.
  4. To make sure the benefits of research and innovation are shared widely - Do people trust innovators to create a future that they want? In a recent survey, Demos found that only 16 per cent of the public believe that technological benefits will be shared evenly across society. Alongside efforts to increase diversity in terms of who becomes an innovator, which take a long time to bare fruit, increasing the interactions between innovators, policymakers and the public could be a necessary and urgent step to addressing this issue.

Developing principles for public engagement

Over the last year at Nesta, the Inclusive Innovation team has focused on public engagement as an important way to spread the benefits of science and innovation policy. Many organisations and individuals have been very generous with their time in helping us to understand both the history of public engagement in the UK and current challenges, from the Research Councils and UKRI to the Wellcome Trust and Involve. A complete list of those who helped us create this document can be found in the acknowledgements section. Our own work builds on the work and thinking of those working in public engagement across the UK and as a result of our observations and learning we would like to offer seven principles that could guide public engagement with science, research and innovation in the 21st century.

Who are these principles for?

Public engagement means different things to different people. In this article, when we talk about public engagement, we have three types of people and activities in mind.

This guide will be most useful for:

  • Government ministers and civil servants - If your job is to help set the goals and direction of science, research and innovation policy, whether that’s through funding programmes or government strategies, or if it’s your job to develop new rules and regulations to govern emerging technologies and innovations.
  • Research funders - When developing and rolling out new funding programmes for research and innovation.
  • The private sector - When making decisions about what products or services to develop and for which users. An example might be driverless cars: what will the impact of this new product on society be, who will gain and who will lose out, how should it be tested?

This guide is not directly aimed at:

  • Scientists and researchers who want to improve the way they communicate their work to the public - think a Brian Cox documentary about the Wonders of the Universe or a science festival where children can learn about the latest scientific discoveries.
  • Researchers who want to involve the public in research, for example as citizen scientists or involving patients in health research.
  • Researchers and institutions who want to demonstrate the impact of their work [PDF].

So when we talk about public engagement throughout this article, we mean two specific things:

Firstly, we mean involving a much broader group of people in discussions and debates about what science, research and innovation are for. That might mean, for example, engaging with a wide group of people when setting strategies, challenges and thus funding priorities.

Secondly, we mean involving a much wider group of people in discussions and debates about new and emerging technologies - their governance, their regulation and the wider social, political and ethical issues that could arise from the way that they are designed and implemented.


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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