OPENER: Scoping out a national cOmmunity of Practice for public ENgagement with Environmental Research

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Geography and Environmental Sciences


Environmental research has the power to connect with people's everyday lives and spark their imaginations. In 2016: a NERC scientist's graphic illustrating global temperatures spiralling upwards went viral on social media and was then used during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, being seen by more than 1 billion people; 12.3 million people watched episodes of BBC's Planet Earth II programme making it the most-watched nature show; over 500,000 volunteers contributed 8 million sightings to the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch; 12,000 people donated the idle time of their computers to to run climate models; and 500 people were involved in Biohacking and DIY Science experimentation.

Our ambition is for large-scale public involvement in participatory research practices, such as citizen science, in order to benefit research, researchers and members of the public. We want to progress from 'engagement' being solely passive consumption of media-channelled facts, or ad hoc one-off contribution to a single initiative, to an ongoing active and routine engagement with environmental research, participating, questioning and debating. Our vision is to leverage the power of the people and their involvement in environmental science at all stages of the research - from research design to explaining the evidence and impact - to address major environmental challenges, co-produce novel research and engage on their own terms. We want to create a generation of researchers who know how to utilise these techniques of successful public engagement and citizen science, and pay attention to the ethical and social implications of participation and the environmental issues in question. We want to establish the research commitment and NGO link that will enable successful co-production of environmental knowledge.

Recent research by ComRes (2017) suggests that people's interest in environmental research increases when they are able to make a connection to their own lives. Yet, only a minority understand what constitutes or regularly engage with environmental research, although many want to hear more. In order to create genuine and sustainable change in public engagement with environmental research, OPENER combines the shared enthusiasm for the environment and the public's curiosity for the natural world with the expanding public engagement capacity of multidisciplinary researchers, practitioners, public-facing organisations and community groups.

OPENER will scope out and build commitment for a national community of practice (CoP) for public engagement with environmental research. We believe that active public engagement and debate must:

1. be a multidisciplinary and partnership-building endeavour;
2. actively build on existing expertise in citizen science and participatory engagement;
3. acknowledge people have a complex identities, often with contradictory opinions;
4. respect and value all knowledge as meaningful and promote pluralism in expertise;
5. develop increased capacity, interest and skills of researchers and audiences;
6. enable avenues of engagement that acknowledge different needs, interests and availability;
7. facilitate public involvement in all stages of the scientific process and make explicit links to everyday life.

Our Team who co-created OPENER is made up of national- and world-leaders in: environmental science (climate, ecology, soil, marine); public engagement and citizen science; cross-disciplinary social science; and public- and membership-facing organisations. We share a commitment to collective learning and embrace the new ways of thinking and doing required to ensure the sustainability of a national CoP. We will engage with a wide range of stakeholders to deliver an intergrated vision, mission, core values and joint activities for public engagement with environmental research in the UK.


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Description To open up environmental science for all, through the course of Stage-1, the team adopted a CoP approach. This is defined as "a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wenger-Trayner 2017). Four CoPs were established around the UK, in Reading, Greater Manchester, Newcastle and London. Each took a slightly different approach and each CoP shared learning locally and with each other as they went along through a mix of face-to-face events and online sessions. Running alongside these local activities was an open access training programme to build capacity within and beyond the NERC research community around citizen science practice. The work of the local CoPs and the citizen science training was complemented by a national survey and face-to-face meetings to broaden input beyond the CoPs and a blog to examine the existing and potential barriers and opportunities facing a national CoP. The four self-sustaining local CoPs and the emerging national CoP are exemplars of how increased commitment to public engagement can be achieved through collective learning, capacity building initiatives, and shared resources. Our project was informed at all stages by a robust approach to evaluation to tell us what was working, what wasn't and to inform project needs.
Exploitation Route 1. establish local communities of practice for individuals and groups interested in public engagement with environmental issues in universities, statutory bodies, and other organisations; 2. actively participate in our citizen science training programme, and implement a citizen science project; 3. use and add to our resource list and blog.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description A citizen science training course
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description NERC Community for Engaging Environments
Amount £1,317,801 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S017437/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 07/2022
Description National Community of Practice for Public Engagement with Environmental Research Visioning Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 80 representatives from a wide range of national and local policy/practice/science/community groups met for a workshop to explore the potential for a national community of practice around public engagement with environmental research, and some of the participants moved forwards with a Stage2 Engaging Environments bid.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Project partner opening up science for all workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Over 20 of our project partners joined us for a workshop to explore the potential for a national community of practice for public engagement with environmental research, we went on to submit a Stage2 project proposal with some of these partners.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018