What was the public dialogue about?
The idea behind public dialogue is that the public are listened to and their concerns and aspirations are taken into consideration, as much as NERC takes into consideration the views of other stakeholders in research, such as business or policy.
The digital environment and public engagement teams joined forces to explore public opinion about NERC’s new digital environment programmes. The pilot project involved two rounds of facilitated workshops in London and Swindon, led by dialogue specialists Hopkins Van Mil, with eight members of NERC staff, and the Digital Environment Champions. Participants were paid to be part of the project and recruited to cover a broad demographic through different methods, including street selection. They were asked to consider what were the issues, such as ethical or environmental, and any new ideas they had on digital environment which those working in the field may not have considered.
Both workshops fed back a strong sense that NERC’s work is important. Many people had not previously considered that a better understanding of the changing planet has the potential to positively affect so many aspects of society, including health, wellbeing and economic growth.
The groups made recommendations for the digital environment theme:
- Gain user feedback on digital tools, including citizen science apps: the uptake will depend on the extent to which people can understand and use the data and tools.
- Involve [public] people in research to ensure people take greater ownership over the issues the research highlights, including through gathering data.
“…if there’s a better interface between scientists, government and public, there’s a bigger base source of data. The public have more ownership over the issues if they’re involved in gathering the data. The government can then create new programmes to improve the environment and lifestyles of the public, based on new research”, participant.
- Make sure people’s involvement is meaningful. Participants were genuinely interested in being involved with reputable environmental research such as NERC’s, which they saw as immensely powerful due to its ability to capture and combine big data sets. This was considered more impactful than passive engagement such as watching documentaries.
“It’s like helping the environment made easy, because usually you find it quite hard to help the environment, but that’s easy, you take a picture and done, you feel you do something good”, London participant.
- Open up data, for example, people felt that “the slightly mysterious dark cabinets” containing air monitoring equipment in their cities should be made more visible, portable and numerous. There was consensus that transparency is preferable over not having access to the information from monitoring the environment, even though there is potential for revealing issues, such as pollution or flooding affecting where people want to live.
“We’ve got every right to know everything about our environment”, London participant.
- Communicate effectively about environmental science research:
- Clear, unequivocal data about their environment, can be a catalyst for citizens to act
- Draw attention to what is happening in people’s local environment to enable talk about global issues
- Talk about the impact of research: for example, people wanted to know how research would impact positively on policies for the environment.
- Capitalise on the value people place on being connected to nature, including to improve wellbeing, echoing findings from Valuing Nature public dialogue.
The independent evaluation considered how effective the dialogue was and found:
- Benefit to NERC, including increasing the Digital Environment Champions’ knowledge of public thoughts in this space; a track record in public engagement as a factor in the selection of experts; and engaging the public earlier on in programme design to create a programme that will be more meaningful and supported by the public, and have impact.
“It is hard but rewarding to listen and realise that most people don’t think in linear ways, this can provide new perspectives”, NERC participant
- Benefits for participants, including feeling the experience was worthwhile and enjoyable, and feeling opinions were valued.
“I felt that my opinions mattered.” London participant
“[Since the first Workshop] I have started to discuss these issues with my son (12 years old) and involve him in things like the recycling and we have downloaded some of the apps which we are doing together”, participant
“I was very struck by the idea that you can create a duplicate or dummy environment through digital data – amazing potential for modelling outcomes.” participant
- Learnings for future dialogue, including: more value might have been derived if the dialogue topic had been better framed at the outset; involving more participants for wider representation; how dialogue could be useful in horizon scanning and commissioning priority setting; and the need to spend more time on controversial issues where it would be useful to get public input.
“The public dialogue workshops were extremely useful and informative for our team. They provided us with an opportunity to listen to the public’s views on a programme that we work on day in day out, and as a result has helped us shape our thinking around the future direction of the programme and research areas we might like to focus on going forwards”, Sarah Campbell, Senior Programme Manager, Digital Environment Team
“Public dialogue plays a key role in demonstrating that we are a responsible organisation – operating a way that benefits both society and the environment. It provides an opportunity to better understand the expectations and values of not just the general public but also our local communities,” Candice Snelling, Head of Sustainability
“I have really enjoyed working with the Digital Environment team, who were very committed and open to the whole dialogue process. I learnt a lot from them, and I am really pleased that the partnership between our teams is starting to bring a different perspective to the research”, Hannah King, Senior Public Engagement Programme Manager
Find out more
Find out more by reading the dialogue report and evaluation report, or by visiting the digital environment website.
In our next public dialogue, diverse public groups will inform plans in the healthy environment theme, involving NERC and UKRI public engagement and the healthy environment teams.
I am Senior Public Engagement Programme Manager at Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and my role is to embed public engagement within NERC as a responsible organisation, and within the research community NERC supports. I work on diverse projects, from creating strategy, to supporting researchers through our Engaging Environments grants, to national-scale projects like Operation Earth.