3.3.4 Inspiring, informing and interacting with the public

We will align our activities with the UKRI cross-council initiative in public engagement and continue to invest in activities targeted at the engineering and physical sciences space. In particular, we will seek to inspire the public by facilitating and encouraging STEM researchers to enthuse others about the outputs of their research. We will showcase the range and desirability of STEM careers to attract people, thereby enabling the UK to build a strong, inspired engineering and physical sciences workforce. Our role is also to enable our research community to collaborate and interact with the wider society throughout the research process, so taxpayers understand and value the investments we make on their behalf.

As a public funder of research, we have a clear responsibility to ensure our investments align with the principles of responsible innovation and create genuine value for society, ethically and responsibly. We also recognise the importance of helping to inform public opinion, objectively and constructively, and contributing to a wide, inclusive public debate on potentially controversial topics such as robotics and AI or other Grand Challenges, such as AI & Data, Ageing Society, Clean Growth, etc. Effective, timely public dialogue brings increased accountability of public investment, increased legitimacy for decisions and a richer understanding of public views on and perceptions of new technologies. Decisions informed by public dialogue are more likely to be robust, publicly acceptable, socially informed, cost-effective and easier/quicker to implement. 

Long-term ambitions

We will enhance the public understanding and appreciation of the importance of investment in engineering and physical sciences research and ensure we and UKRI are viewed as trusted, responsible organisations through broad inclusive engagement with the public. Our long-term aspiration is to  ensure that:

  • public engagement strategies function coherently across UKRI's remit. Success will be reflected in a more engineering and physical sciencesliterate public with strong awareness of what our investment of their taxes produces on their behalf, and the number of young people inspired to pursue STEM careers
  • responsible innovation is business-as-usual for researchers, and there is more comprehensive recognition of the opportunity it offers in exploring and opening up new, more sustainable, more socially desirable pathways for innovation
  • research investments are appropriately informed by public concerns and values, via public dialogue.

Near-term actions

In 2019-20 we will:

  • work closely across UKRI on provision for public engagement with schools and science festivals with a focus around our productive, connected, healthy and resilient nation priorities
  • pursue one strategic intervention with external partners per year when key opportunities arise. In 2019-20, pilot Public Engagement Fellowships to link with the Year of Engineering and the Women's Engineering Society centenary. In 2020-21, partner on public engagement activities relating to AI.

Case studies

Encouraging public dialogue on quantum technologies

We commissioned social research agency Kantar Public to carry out a public dialogue on quantum technologies in 2017. The aim was to better understand how the public views and feels about such technologies now being developed by researchers. Held in Oxford, Glasgow, Birmingham and York, workshops designed to capture a diversity of views generated a highly exploratory dialogue that produced the first substantive knowledge of public attitudes to quantum technologies and their applications. A key finding was that limited exposure to information about these technologies has led to an initial feeling of neutrality towards them. More exposure to information saw many participants become more engaged and excited by the range of potential benefits, especially those associated with health and humanitarian applications. The findings and recommendations are informing research and innovation priorities in the next phase of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme.

Inspiring the public on robotics

Robots, a major 2017 exhibition held at London's Science Museum, explored humanity's 500-year quest to reimagine ourselves as machines. Featuring a unique collection of over 100 robots, ranging from a 16th century mechanical monk to robots from science fiction and modern-day research labs, the exhibition explored how religious belief, the Industrial Revolution, popular culture and dreams about the future have all shaped society. Recent developments from robotics research were on show and visitors could explore how and why roboticists are building robots that resemble us and interact in human-like ways. The exhibition attracted over 187,000 visitors and extensive national and international media coverage, before touring other UK and international venues. We supported the exhibition, along with the Heritage Lottery Fund, Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.