Public engagement can take on any form, no matter your topic of research

By Mara Yerkes

Nearly three years ago, brandishing an umbrella to protect myself, I let parents and kids throw yellow and green colored balls at me while on stage. No, I didn’t have some strange desire to be pelted by plastic. It was all part of Operatie Breinbreker, a corona-based alternative to Weekend van de Wetenschap (A Weekend of Science). Before 2020, my stage presence was mostly limited to playing a dog in a middle school play. But on stage at TivoliVredenburg? As a scientist? Nope. Certainly not talking to kids aged 8-12 (and their parents) about my research (that can even sometimes be difficult to explain to adults). 

My performance that day taught me that public engagement really could take on any form, no matter what your topic of research. Kids that were there learned about historic Roman borders, one-sided deafness, the recycling of CO2, and how parents differ in caring for kids. All in a fun, play-based, gameshow format. For me, it meant broadening my public engagement experience beyond working with stakeholders, like policymakers. And learning the value of these diverse forms of public engagement.  

Why are they so valuable? Because science is a part of society, and society a part of science. I find public engagement energizing but also educational; engaging with multiple publics has strengthened my research and teaching. How? Because doing public engagement makes us look at what we do through the eyes of others, giving new insights. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenges involved in doing public engagement. We recently highlighted some of these challenges, in relation to the role of public engagement in Open Science in an article with Utrecht University colleagues. Read it – and maybe you’ll be inspired to get on stage, to integrate public engagement into your teaching, to involve stakeholders in your research – or simply to grab an umbrella and take whatever comes your way. 

Curious? This is the article Mara refers to: Wouter Boon, Judith de Haan and Carien Duisterwinkel et al. Meaningful public engagement in the context of open science: reflections from early and mid-career academics. Research for All. Vol. 6(1). DOI: 10.14324/RFA.06.1.23.

Prof. Mara Yerkes is professor of Comparative Social Policy in relation to Social Inequalities at the Faculty of Social Sciences.  


This article also appears in the third edition of the magazine Close-up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

Go to Close-up #3