News from Prosperity and Resilience: Dr Hilary Geoghegan

New initiative set to transform public’s engagement with environmental research

Dr Hilary Geoghegan was recently awarded £100,000, from the NERC Engaging Environments programme, to develop a national vision for public engagement with environmental research. The new initiative, called OPENER, will ask members of the public to help them in opening up research on the major environmental challenges facing the planet. OPENER will identify ways that researchers can involve people at all stages of the research process.

OPENER is a 1-year project that aims to develop a national community of practice for public engagement with environment research. It is focused on building capacity through training in citizen science and developing local communities of practice to prepare for a nationwide programme of public engagement with environmental sciences.

The UK has a rich history of citizen science, in which non-experts collect vital data to inform scientists on the state of the environment. Members of the public can be seen across the country, scouring shores, wandering through woodlands and sampling streams, although more can be done to involve people in such activities.

Citizen science projects have been shown to have considerable impact in advancing research, giving members of the public the chance to get involved in research and providing manpower for scientists to achieve their aims. Engaging volunteers to record sightings of animal and plant species have helped build an understanding of biodiversity, while other projects have given the public access to the kind of materials that are normally exclusive to professional scientists.

OPENER will set up a national consortium that takes citizen science to the next level by asking the public how opportunities to take part in environmental research can be made easier and more exciting.

Led by the University of Reading, OPENER also involves University College London, Imperial College London, Newcastle University, University of Salford and the Earthwatch Institute.

Dr Hilary Geoghegan, Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Reading, and project lead, said: “We want to harness the power of the public, regardless of age and ability, to address major environmental challenges. We want to progress from ‘public engagement’ being solely passive consumption of science news, or one-off involvement in a single initiative, to being ongoing, active and routine. Our vision is to leverage the power of the people to co-produce innovative research that is relevant to people’s lives.”

Studies suggest that people are more interested in environmental research when they are able to make a connection to their own lives. Yet, only a minority understand or regularly engage with environmental research. In order to create genuine and sustainable changes, OPENER will combine the public’s curiosity for the natural world with the increased desire among researchers and businesses to expand public engagement.”

OPENER will impact public engagement with environmental research in the UK and wider global networks of citizen science.