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Published 21 July 2016

New guidelines support researchers to engage with the public

Guidelines released today by the Royal Society of New Zealand seek to foster and support effective engagement between researchers and society.

Guidelines released today by the Royal Society of New Zealand seek to foster and support effective engagement between researchers and society.

Royal Society of New Zealand President, Emeritus Professor Richard Bedford, said the new Public Engagement Guidelines for Researchers, Scholars and Scientists are framed around three principles:

  • that society benefits from being informed about new knowledge and how it might be applied
  • that different employment contexts bring different obligations to researchers around public engagement, and
  • that professionalism and transparency from researchers is needed to build and maintain public trust.

The guidelines acknowledge that society has a stake in research that is carried out in New Zealand and there should be an ongoing, two-way conversation between researchers and society, where society is kept informed about new knowledge but also society’s interests and needs are fed back into what is investigated by researchers.

Public engagement is a shared responsibility where the research community, government funders, media and other members of society need to engage to achieve results.

The Government requested that the Royal Society of New Zealand develop the guidelines as part of A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, A National Strategic Plan for Science in Society.

Professor Bedford said there were concerns early on in the process that the guidelines were about ‘gagging scientists’ but these concerns were seldom voiced at the consultation meetings held around the country to gather input.

“Regardless of setting, researchers have an obligation to keep the public informed about their research wherever possible, recognising where there are valid constraints to information sharing that have to be considered carefully in the wider context of protecting the public interest. At all times researchers need to act with integrity to meet high professional standards and build public trust in research.

“The path for public engagement may be clearest for academics who have an accepted role as ‘critic and conscience of society’ under the Education Act 1989, but this does not mean that those researchers working under contractual obligations or confidentiality clauses can’t or shouldn’t engage with the public.

“Ideally there would be clear processes and shared understanding between researchers and their employers about public engagement and we hope these guidelines will serve as a useful tool for facilitating discussions around public engagement.”

Professor Bedford said he was struck at the consultation workshops by the variety of settings for research in New Zealand. “Researchers are employed by universities, Crown Research Institutes and the private sector, of course, but also a large number of researchers work in other tertiary institutions, not-for-profit research organisations, as sole practice researchers or on a volunteer basis.

“We want these guidelines to be useful to researchers and employers in all of these settings, so they are not prescriptive nor legally binding. Hopefully they will assist researchers to engage effectively with the public and foster public trust and interest in New Zealand research.”

This is the first time such guidelines have been developed in New Zealand.

The guidelines would be reviewed after 18 months in light of their uptake and following further engagement with communities as part of other Royal Society of New Zealand initiatives on supporting diversity in the research community and public outreach.

“The Society is also committed to further engagement with the Māori community around research and research ethics beyond what has been possible as part of this process,” Professor Bedford said.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi