University of Glasgow
The University of Glasgow’s MSc Cancer Research and Precision Oncology is a 1-year programme which offers students a comprehensive training in cancer sciences. Our programme is highly rated by our graduates and offers our students the opportunity to develop in key skills which are essential to a fruitful career in the field, however an opportunity exists to enhance the level of public engagement (PE) training provided throughout the year.
This project proposes to investigate the impacts on students learning and skills of incorporating additional, specific PE training within the program. It will also allow us to gain a greater understanding of student perceptions and comprehension of PE, which will be vital in the continuing development of training.
The Importance of Public Engagement
In the broader sector, PE plays a critical role in shaping public attitudes about science and scientists, helping to build public trust in research and research outputs, the importance of which was perhaps never as apparent as during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A study by Hou et al., 2021 showed that among social media users, less than half (36.4%) of those in London intended to accept a vaccination against COVID-19 and expressed a lack of confidence in safety as well as a distrust of experts and demonstrated widespread misunderstanding.
In cancer research specifically, our work ultimately centers on improving patient quality of life, and involvement of patients and public is essential to help inform our practices and policies. Not only can patient and public involvement (PPI) lead to improved understanding, it may even contribute to important factors such as patient enrolment and retention in clinical trial studies (Crocker et al., 2018). Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer research organization, highlight these benefits with a statement on their patient involvement toolkit (Cancer Research UK, n.d.), stating:
“Patient involvement can improve the quality and relevance of your work, helping you better understand and articulate the benefits your research can have for cancer patients.”
It is imperative however that PE is not simply considered a method of unidirectional dissemination, as it has the potential to inform scientists about the public’s perspectives and understanding and can improve upon these relationships. This type of mutually beneficial two-way engagement may be considered the “gold standard” in PE ventures, yet evidence suggests (Yuan et al., 2017) that a majority of those who engage with PE do so with a more one-way, dissemination-focused approach, highlighting an area for improvement in PE training. Data from Dudo & Besley, 2016 demonstrate that scientists prioritize specific communication approaches, often those which aim to defend science, and illustrate the need for improved communication training which allows scientists to understand their objectives based more heavily on audience context and need.
Our student cohort come from a varied range of scientific backgrounds and go on to pursue careers in wide-ranging sectors which may include academic research, clinical practice, or industry. It is important therefor that students are equipped with the tools to understand and appreciate the benefits and impacts of PE and, importantly, the requirements of different groups.
The benefits of engaging with PE are well documented and widely recognized, and significantly a number of these potential benefits also closely align with elements of the University’s Graduate Attributes (University of Glasgow, 2021) including effective communicators, confidence, ethically and socially aware. Not only does it develop these crucial skills, but engagement with PE and comprehensive PE training also promotes a healthy mindset towards this type of communication – engagement is essential and there is a net benefit to those who actively participate (Copple et al., 2020; Stylinski, Storksdieck, Canzoneri, Klein, & Johnson, 2018).
Interestingly, Stevenson and McArthur (2015) also highlight that the type of PE involvement which is now all but mandatory for academic researchers can, by-proxy, promote the development of skills and attitudes which are essential to good university teaching. This demonstrates that this type of training not only benefits students on an academic career track but has great potential to contribute to good practice in university teaching and therefor perpetuating these benefits to subsequent cohorts of students.
Aims and approach
A qualitative approach will be taken to addressing several key questions, relying on student pre/post testing at the start and end of the academic year, before and after PE training. Throughout the year, this training will be incorporated into the MSc program, culminating in students designing a short PE proposal related to their research interests, and students will be surveyed on the same set of questions to understand the perceived impact that the training program has had.
Our focus areas are:
- Understanding student perceptions of public engagement/science communication.
- Improving student understanding of PE, including audience requirements.
- Enhancing student graduate skills in line with the University of Glasgow graduate attributes.
As this project is in early developmental stages, feedback and input from the SoTL community would be invaluable. The areas that we aim to address with this project have widespread applicability across assorted fields within and out with the biosciences, and we would be eager to explore future collaborations with any interested colleagues.
Cancer Research UK. (n.d.). Patient involvement toolkit for researchers. Retrieved from https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/patient-involvement-toolkit-for-researchers
Copple, J., Bennett, N., Dudo, A., Moon, W.-K., Newman, T. P., Besley, J., . . . Volpe, C. (2020). Contribution of Training to Scientists’ Public Engagement Intentions: A Test of Indirect Relationships Using Parallel Multiple Mediation. Science Communication, 42(4), 508-537. doi:10.1177/1075547020943594
Crocker, J. C., Ricci-Cabello, I., Parker, A., Hirst, J. A., Chant, A., Petit-Zeman, S., . . . Rees, S. (2018). Impact of patient and public involvement on enrolment and retention in clinical trials: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 363, k4738. doi:10.1136/bmj.k4738
Dudo, A., & Besley, J. C. (2016). Scientists’ Prioritization of Communication Objectives for Public Engagement. PLOS ONE, 11(2), e0148867. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148867
Hou, Z., Tong, Y., Du, F., Lu, L., Zhao, S., Yu, K., . . . Lin, L. (2021). Assessing COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy, Confidence, and Public Engagement: A Global Social Listening Study. J Med Internet Res, 23(6), e27632. doi:10.2196/27632
Stevenson, E., & McArthur, J. (2015). Triple nexus: improving STEM teaching through a research-public engagement-teaching nexus. International Journal for Academic Development, 20(3), 291-294. doi:10.1080/1360144X.2014.995662
Stylinski, C., Storksdieck, M., Canzoneri, N., Klein, E., & Johnson, A. (2018). Impacts of a comprehensive public engagement training and support program on scientists’ outreach attitudes and practices. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 8(4), 340-354. doi:10.1080/21548455.2018.1506188
University of Glasgow. (2021). Graduate Attributes Roadmap. Retrieved from https://
Yuan, S., Oshita, T., AbiGhannam, N., Dudo, A., Besley, J. C., & Koh, H. E. (2017). Two-way communication between scientists and the public: a view from science communication trainers in North America. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 7(4), 341-355. doi:10.1080/21548455.2017.1350789