The Wellcome Trust’s International Public Engagement: Engage to Empower workshop – the first conference of its kind – held at the Africa Centre for Health and Population studies in KwaZulu Natal in December 2008, brought together over 60 delegates from 15 countries to share their knowledge on media, policy and community engagement in developing world contexts.
Opening the workshop, four delegates from four continents told short stories about the relationship between science and communities in their countries: an Indian delegate read a poem about debates arising from the commercialisation of a medicinal plant, a Kenyan delegate told a story about popular understandings of HIV, a Brazilian delegate debated stem cell research regulation through the medium of radio, and a UK delegate explored how a narrative about science is constructed through drama.
As the workshop went on the stories and ways of telling them multiplied but shared themes also emerged: What should be the role of researchers in engagement? Who are the publics? Can intermediaries be involved in engagement and what is their role? How can we evaluate the impact of public engagement activities? How transferable are lessons learned by practitioners between geographical and cultural contexts?
Case studies of community engagement came from Colombia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and not least from the Africa Centre itself. ‘[This meeting showed] me how important it is to get communities on board – it can’t be top-down, it has to be grassroots to genuinely engage with people,’ commented one delegate.
And evidence is beginning to emerge that shows research agendas being influenced by community engagement: for example, the Africa Centre has started a schistosomiasis study because engagement activities reported children passing blood in their urine.
Ethics and more
A common thread running through discussions was the ethics of engagement. Whose responsibility is it to do community engagement? When and how should engagement plans be reviewed? Who should decide the appropriateness of engagement strategies and delivery?.
All agreed that meaningful community engagement is vital to the research process, and that wider public engagement is also paramount. Capacity development of the media – be it print, broadcast or multimedia – was seen as an essential way forward to engage people with science and research. The meeting drew on experiences from Brazil, Uganda and South Africa, as well as the international efforts of SciDev.net and the World Federation of Science Journalists, to debate ways of promoting standards of scientific journalism globally.
Inputs from Kenya, Burkina Faso, South Africa, and the UK explored strategies for identifying and engaging policy-makers in different contexts. Timing was crucial to success, and the role of intermediary knowledge brokers was hotly debated.
Chai and why
One tangible success of the workshop was the establishment of the African Science Cafés network, aimed at implementing the Café Scientifique model. Of the 250 science cafes in 40 countries in the world, only four currently exist in Africa. The workshop also saw the development of worldwide science café collaborations – ‘Chai and why’ anyone? [Chai is the Indian term for tea]
The challenge now is to keep this community talking and collaborating across borders, languages and virtual space. A blog  has been set up with reports of the meeting and discussions on various topics – feel free to join in!
At the heart of the meeting was why public engagement is so relevant and immediate in the developing world. In the words of one delegate from the UK: ‘What’s interesting here, and really different from the UK, is the physical sense of urgency in terms of engaging people with science. At home we treat it as a philosophical question – but here it matters; it’s life and death sometimes. Here there are real practical reasons why we should involve people in science.’