Public Engagement—where connects you and academia

March 12, 2024

The visit to Mitsuyoshi lab

It is already March. With rain and sometimes snow, my feet get cold in days and nights. Of course my head gets cold as well, so dear readers, if you are feeling the same way, please stay warm from head to toe.

Despite this cold, my schedule is filled up and I have to go out. I visited the University of Tokyo in the afternoon of 7th when some snow was still on the road, half-melting like sorbets. This school is open to the public, so I did not have to feel too nervous when getting in even though I am not a student. Today, my purpose is to meet members of Shunji Mitsuyoshi’s Research Laboratory—the actual title is Mathematical Engineering of Morality Emotions. This research lab and my institute have worked on collaborative research for several years. I may tell you why and what research we are working together at some point: I need some time to understand this project, at least well enough to introduce you. Again, it was my first visit to the lab, so I am not going to talk about our research a lot in this blog.

But, allow me to tell you why I am in this position. Before coming to this institute, IISIA, I was working as a science communicator, often involved in communication to connect various academic fields to our society. Some projects were part of public engagement. This term is often used by policy makers or researchers to describe their communication methods when getting citizens’ responses and applying them to a specific rule-making and research project. Which means, through public engagement, those two parties are connected: those who produce something can get responses from individuals who will receive their products in the future. This can make a production process better (helping who are trying to produce something new or modified version of existing objects or systems) and later, its final products can be used more widely among individuals (already gaining certain understanding from a community).

Interactions between researchers and citizens

For example, from researchers’ point of view, (depending on their research field and approaches) they do not usually see how their research will be accepted (or not) by citizens. Citizens on the other hand, end up with the impression that some smart researchers say difficult things on media. One of the causes of this gap is that many researchers are horrible communicators (from my experience), but I am not blaming them. The problem is, this communication gap between researchers and citizens, may bring unnecessary misunderstanding or ignorance. I think some of you may relate to this topic.

Now, how can this situation change when there is a bridge between these two parties? This bridge could be people like communicators or places for interaction. Research often has a long, repetitive process while researchers spend days and nights thinking and getting hints from even negative experimental results, which leads next experiments and fieldwork. The toughness and intellectual joy found in this process are not easy to imagine for non-researchers or even researchers in different fields.

At the same time, these particular points are something that researchers can show to the public: through this presentation, researchers themselves could attract the audience, gaining understanding about their research projects. Some of the audience may even realize the value of true research (and its results) and its intensity and sincerity. I am sure that the audience’s perspectives to research fields and researchers will change by this interaction—I hope this is a positive change, not a negative one. What’s interesting about this communication — public engagement — is often treating the audience as an active member of a research project, instead of one of research participants.

For researchers, this is an opportunity to directly get the opinions and responses of citizens who become interested in their projects. They may find the research topic interesting in a different way from researchers. Also, these citizens are potential users who would receive the fruits of ongoing research after their results bring new insights and are luckily applied to a society in the future.

Therefore, these questions are often asked during the interaction: How do researchers present their projects to the public? How does a research bring discoveries, and get accepted when the discoveries are applied as products, social systems, and new “common knowledge”? If they are not likely accepted, then why and how can they get better?

To the audience (I mean non-researchers), researchers cannot use the same communication approach as to their colleagues at an academic symposium. Installation of the idea of public engagement got started in Japan, with a gradual increase in academic communicators working at institutes and schools.

The mission of IISIA

Here in IISIA, our aim is to go further. To help people imagine and build a better future, any innovative research needs to be deepened and its knowledge has to be implemented through public engagement. Our ultimate mission, “giving the people hope and future” will be achieved from our first step of collaboration with academia, such as the University of Tokyo. We take steps towards shaping a better future, and public engagement will be the key in this journey.

Corporate Planning Group, Ayuko Sakurai