Outreach and engagement are both terms that you might come across when you start exploring science communication. They have a lot in common, but they’re not the same thing.
What’s the difference between outreach and engagement?
The terms are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences. Outreach is mainly a one-way communication to generate attention, and engagement is a two-way conversation. An example of outreach would be visiting a local school with the purpose of recruiting future students for the university. Engagement is often more interactive and driven by the audience. But the two can be combined as well: Your audience at an outreach event might be very engaged, asking questions, and suggesting ideas. If you can allow visitors to bring some input, an otherwise one-way outreach event can turn into two-way engagement.
The tricky thing is that to evaluate whether your engagement worked, you’ll need to anticipate this two-way communication, and plan what you will measure. It’s not just about the number of people you’ve reached!
From understanding to engagement
Not too long ago, the term “public understanding of science” (or PUS) was also in use, but this has mostly been replaced with public engagement. The difference here is not only about the direction of communication (one-way or two-way) but also about the type of message. “Public understanding” was based on the idea that “the general public” just needed to understand more science, and that would convince them of the benefits. But more recently, science communicators have realised it’s not about explaining science, but about making connections. Engagement includes things like citizen science, community-driven research, or other creative ways for scientists to interact with people outside of their work.
- What is public engagement? National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE)
- Why Public Engagement Matters. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
- Nadkarni NM, Weber CQ, Goldman SV, Schatz DL, Allen S, Menlove R. Beyond the Deficit Model: The Ambassador Approach to Public Engagement. BioScience 2019; 69: 305–313 doi:10.1093/biosci/biz018