Why bother with research engagement?

Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)
Weave mandala (Photo courtesy of Mr Greenjeans on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaylon)

We already engage all the time. It’s a part of family life, work, and our everyday relationships.

Engagement describes a journey; it is about building a conversation, a friendship, trust and – ultimately – a working relationship.

But why do we need to do it? And how do we, as scientists, engage? Do the ways in which a researcher might engage differ from how we engage with friends and family?

In a professional sense, scientists need to engage across many sectors of society. They need to do this to keep their work relevant, market themselves and their research potential, and create networks that help build a career, another’s career, foster collaborations, or to assist in government decision-making processes.

General engagement models consist of a series of stages that shift the relationship from Information sharing through to Empowerment (Information – Consult – Involve – Collaborate – Empower). With empowerment comes a traditional relationship with shared deliberations, shared goals, and ultimately the shifting of power for making decisions from one party to another. The goal of an engagement exercise might not necessarily be Empowerment, but it is a highly sought-after endpoint in many community-based projects. It is certainly true, for example, in community-based management of natural spaces.

Many people have an intrinsic ability to engage, especially in a public arena, yet struggle in a professional setting. Getting it more right than wrong requires practice, patience, and risk.

In 2001, I had just started a working on a project to set up a sea turtle monitoring project in a remote part of Northern Australia. It was a short, one-year project to collect biological data from turtles so we could fill an important knowledge gap for their management. The challenge for me was that I had never been to an Indigenous community and had little knowledge of how to even begin.

Through a friend, I was introduced to a Traditional Owner from the area I was going to work in and he provided me with some sage advice. He told me: Do not “sneak up on people” and “expect that things can go wrong”.

Researchers and others seeking to engage with communities or individuals need to take time, and to make gradual and non-forced introductions to let people think and consider the idea. Doing this gives people the time and space to either allow you in or respectfully retreat.

A decade later, this advice still holds true and a key part of my current research is engaging with Indigenous communities about issues of threatened species management. I don’t always get it right, and there have been some rocky roads, but oftentimes a shared adversity strengthens bonds.

The work I do now is largely applied, and my focus is mainly on improving understanding of species biology to inform and improve species management. There are six broad groups of people who I frequently engage with because they fund or use my research outputs:

  1. Indigenous people,
  2. government staff,
  3. industry,
  4. NGOs,
  5. scientists, and
  6. the public.

Yet engaging with these groups is not straightforward. Each group has many layers or sectors. Sometimes, I need to engage with people across multiple layers, or even multiple groups because the message is relevant to many people.

The challenge of engaging well with even one group was highlighted to me in 2011. We decided to evaluate the impact of a four-year research project that had a large emphasis on collaboration and engagement with Indigenous groups. We collected a range of survey data from all our end users and we were surprised to learn that we scored both well and poorly with regard to our communication strategy. A closer examination of the data revealed that our communication mainly focused on the groups in the community closest to our work (such as the rangers).  Our message was missing the broader community, and some areas of community leadership. We have addressed this by being clearer about expectations and diversifying message delivery.

In this situation knowing that there are a variety of engagement tools comes into its own; in fact, many professionals in the area refer to having an ‘engagement toolbox’. There are many tools to use and resources available, but the choice of tool will depend on who you are trying to engage with, and what part of the engagement spectrum you are aspiring to reach. Worth mentioning, too, is the need to be proactive and plan for engagement at the project conception stage. It is usually easier and more successful than retro-fitting it later.

Engagement is also not one-way, in that the flow of benefits does not always go from researcher to research user. Rather, it is a circular and adaptive learning process. Through my interactions, I have learnt a great deal about how government bureaucracies, industry, and NGO decision-making processes work, and how to pitch ideas for research and the results of research to them.

I know that by involving community people as scientists (aka citizen scientists) in our projects, participants have grown a greater appreciation of science. By encouraging my PhD students to engage with research users, they tend to develop a strong appreciation of the world outside academia.

A former student of mine, Kristen Weiss (who blogs at Down under and back), used social network analysis to map the transfer of knowledge and power as it related to turtle and dugong management in Australia. Some of her findings highlight how important it is for researchers and research users to connect with each other. She found that knowledge does not always equal power and with good engagement researchers and smaller regional Natural Resource Management bodies play a vital role as a hub connecting all stakeholders. A second important finding is that birds of a feather flock together: Engagement can help break insularity and enable cross disciplinary relationships.

There is no escaping the fact that engagement takes time, can cost money, and is perceived by many to be hard.

But it’s invaluable to society.

Engagement enables change. It is needed to increase human and social capacity and, therefore, engagement can boost human resilience. A wise researcher should want to be part of that.

Mark Hamann (James Cook University)After working for both NGOs and government, Mark Hamann is now a researcher and lecturer at James Cook University in Townsville.

His research interests cross several disciplines but generally relate to marine wildlife ecology, marine and freshwater turtle biology, marine wildlife management, conservation biology, and the impacts of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems.

Most of Mark’s current research projects are conducted with partners from government, industry, NGOs and Indigenous communities. He spends a considerable amount of his time talking about science and science delivery with his collaborators.

Last year, Mark participated in “I’m a Scientist get me out of here” and he was introduced to the world of online science communication. 

Mark tweets from @turtlesatJCU. His ORCID is 0000-0003-4588-7955


  1. Great piece, Mark, and so good to see researchers taking community engagement seriously and planning for it from the outset. Thanks for writing this!

    It reminds me of the time I put together a small community outreach event to share some research findings back in 2010. From the outside, it looked like a really expensive BBQ… but it turned out to be a really powerful research engagement experience and a profound experience for the community.

    Non-Indigenous community members told me how much it meant to them to be “invited” in (by the Indigenous community members) to see the results of our work, and Indigenous community members told me how proud they were to see the results of our collaborative research and to have the whole community see their history and heritage as something worth knowing about.

    Of course, research engagement is a process, not an event, but it changed the way I understood community engagement in research and opened up all sorts of new (still very much hypothetical) possibilities. And your piece just made me both ‘homesick’ for that work, and excited about the potential of genuinely engaged research, both for researchers and for communities.


  2. Thanks Deborah,

    Glad you enjoyed the blog. Writing it forced me to think back through my engagement activities and how hard it was to start, and build momentum. I have been fortunate. I have had great mentors, research users willing to talk and interact with, supportive senior managers and a group of motivated students who love to talk about their research with anyone who will listen. It has sometimes been a rocky road but we are all learning together.

    On BBQs – the other advice I received from the TO re. community engagement was “turn up on day one with a box of beef ribs and invite all participants for a BBQ”



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