Actions and associations Understanding scientists’ perceptions of public engagement through analyses of open-ended survey responses

Author: Mikhaila Calice – University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States


  • Luye Bao – University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
  • Dominique Brossard – University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
  • Ezra Markowitz – University of Massachusetts, United States
  • Kate Rose – Dartmouth College, United States
  • Michael Xenos – University of Wisconsin-Madison

Science communication research increasingly explores public engagement activities among scientists, but research on how scientists understand public engagement is underdeveloped. Conceptualizations of public engagement rarely include perspectives of scientists, especially in their own words. In this study, we use an inductive approach to explore how scientists perceive public engagement.

Using data from a summer 2019 survey of scientists from 46 land grant universities throughout the United States (N=8235, response rate = 14.1%), we examine scientist perceptions of public engagement. We specifically analyze responses to an open-ended question that asks scientists to list the first three words that come to mind when they think of “public engagement.” Of the scientists surveyed, 94 percent provided at least one word, resulting in a total of 21,491 responses. When accounting for duplicates, the final sample includes 7,925 unique word associations with the term public engagement. A factor analysis of word frequencies identified the dimensionality of these answers to expose definitional themes of public engagement. We used these extracted thematic categories as a baseline definition of public engagement. We then analyzed how this definition aligns with scientists’ views about the intended outcomes of public engagement and which engagement activities they participate in.

Preliminary findings show that “outreach” and “education” are core components of scientists’ perceptions of public engagement, suggesting many scientists surveyed have a traditional view of engagement. In addition, these analyses demonstrate how scientists’ perceptions of public engagement relate to their reported engagement activities. The analysis of these open-ended responses clarifies understandings of public engagement in science communication efforts. With such clarification, this paper will provide insight into ways to encourage the transformation of engagement opportunities for scientists. Our approach further illustrates the value of inductive methods in research of complex concepts such as public engagement and aims to encourage replication in geographies around the world.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Transformation