Wellcome Trust funds public engagement

The Wellcome Trust, a major funder of biomedical research in the UK, has made a new 4.5 million pound investment in public engagement, as explained by Clare Matterson: “Scientists’ public engagement work should be generously funded”.

At the Wellcome Trust, time and again we hear of researchers being told by seniors in their department not to get distracted by this public engagement lark "Funders only care how many Nature papers you've got under your belt, not how much public engagement you've done." This may have been partly our fault. Our research grants, while not profligate, are generous enough to enable scientists to investigate some of our greatest challenges, such as the role our genes play in cancer and new ways to tackle malaria, but we also expected that any associated public engagement activities should come out of this budget. This may have sent out mixed messages: yes, do public engagement, but don't expect any money for it.

I wish that the “broader impacts” portion of NSF grant proposals were more than an afterthought. It is ironic that scientific reviews that insist on demonstrated methods do exactly the opposite with respect to public engagement, failing to demand evidence of effectiveness and value-for-money of engagement activities.

This new policy by the Wellcome Trust seems to take seriously the need to improve the quality and innovation of engagement activity:

The Wellcome Trust prides itself on funding first-class research, and recognises that this cannot be done on a shoestring. If we also want our researchers to do first-class engagement, we should not expect them to do so with the coppers left over from their research grant. You wouldn't expect to go to a West End theatre to see a musical whose score is played by an amateur pianist or where the sets are made out of old cornflake boxes. So why shouldn't we be equally dissatisfied it the science event we attend is of poor quality?