How 'connectors' bridge the gap between research and the public

A surprising range of organisations, from retailers to design agencies, can provide a bridge between the public and research. These 'connectors' play a key role in effective public engagement.

Blueprint for a research facility with crowds of people walking around the buildings.

Blueprint for an 80,000 square foot research facility for mosquito-borne illnesses at the Innovation Center for Disease and Water Management in Dar Es Salaam. Collaboration allowed architects and artists to bring a public lens to the design of the centre.

Some of the most successful public engagement initiatives have come from collaborating with organisations outside the research sector, who can provide a bridge between the public and research.

In my previous blog I described how Night Club, a collaboration between leading sleep researchers, shift work employers and a design agency had helped the shift workers reduce the impact of the night-shift on their health, based on sleep research.

The employers, such as the Co-op and John Lewis, helped the research reach the people who could most use it: the shift workers, and those who set policies on working practices in employers. And design agency Liminal Space brought skills to help diverse groups relate to each other and the research.

Who are the 'connectors'?

We’ve coined the term ‘connectors’ for organisations like Liminal Space and the Co-op, who create that vital bridge between the public and research. They come from a broad church and span areas such as civil society, design-based disciplines, media and communications, and frontline services.

They have a way to connect with the public that comes from their relationship with the public, the skills they bring, or a well used platform they’ve created – from football clubs to social media.

By bringing these skills and assets, connectors help to reduce the burden on researchers, making it easier to conduct purposeful public engagement.

Connectors do what the behavioural scientists such as the Behavioural Insights Team call EAST – making involvement easy, attractive, social and timely – for both researchers and the public.

In the case of Night Club, having two different types of connectors (employers and a design team) resulted in very high employee engagement with the sleep research. 88% of shift workers who got involved said they learnt something new about sleep and their health.

Now the Co-op are using the experience to shape their policies around shift work, as well as looking to scale-up the project to other locations across the UK. Nadine Gibbs, an HR Advisor at the Co-op, commented, "I’d like to think that that we can build on [it] going forward… it’s about how we use the tools and resources that have been made available to us to make it fun to talk about some subjects that people maybe haven’t felt comfortable talking about."

Building trust

One of the most important roles connectors can help with is building trust between the public and researchers. The public won’t inform or take up research if they don’t trust it or the people doing it.

This is especially clear where high-security science institutes are based. For example, the need for secure environments when researching illnesses carried by mosquitoes, such as malaria, can inadvertently send signals of secrecy. That can lead to mistrust between researchers and local communities.

Professor Brook Muller led an initiative to show how designers and architects could collaborate with scientists to design public trust into the very fabric of buildings. He realised that mosquito research faced a particularly big challenge.

In a 2018 article, he wrote: "A lack of community engagement around this science leads to the public feeling anxiety and mistrust. Negative public opinion has the potential to derail this research and associated efforts, such as release of genetically modified mosquitoes in cities. My colleague John Bauer, Assistant Dean for the UC San Diego Division of Biological Sciences, noted to me that scientists work in high-security buildings that the public are banned from entering and then wonder why they are so misunderstood."

Collaboration allowed architects and artists to bring a public lens to the architectural design of such centres. And the scientists educated the designers around their challenges and research needs – for example, the importance of making sure facilities faced the sun when studying sun-induced mosquito behaviours.  

The result was an award-winning blueprint for an 80,000 square foot research facility for mosquito-borne illnesses at the Innovation Center for Disease and Water Management in Dar Es Salaam.

The design flipped the centre into an everyday public asset. It functions as a place of both recreation and care by building in sports facilities and a health clinic. Its ecological design can respond to floods or drought by capturing, storing and reusing water for the community’s benefit, as well as creating ideal experimental habitats for the mosquitoes that are visible to the public.  

The project had humble beginnings. It didn’t start with any particular research project. Instead, it was first discussed at a two-day workshop that brought scientists, social scientists, public health specialists together with architects, designers, artists and students. One collaborator included Wellcome-funded researcher Dr Fredros Okumu, who now hopes to implement the project at the Dar Es Salaam Center.

He worked together with Mark Benedict, from the Centre for Disease Control, who also felt hugely optimistic about the potential of the project. Interviewed after the workshop, he said: "I have been doing mosquito work, and in all my life, I have never seen anything like this. These ideas are so engaging; you are going to have children—and others—lined up to visit."

It’s a joint effort

Our theory is that when we can get researchers, connectors and the public each playing their part, then we will really be firing on all cylinders.

We’ll start to see some of the shifts that we need on some of our biggest challenges, from antibiotic resistance to planetary health. In fact, I’d be bold enough to say that we can only achieve impact from research in some of our biggest issues if we act collectively.

In my next blog, I’ll look at how we’ve arranged our work in the public engagement team around helping the public to play their role in research by focusing on creating the culture and conditions for researchers and connectors to do their best work.