From intent to implementation: Public involvement in life science research

John Burns - Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University; AMNH; and eLife Ambassador of Good Practice in Science, Kora Korzec - eLife Sciences Publishing and Emma Dorris - University College Dublin; and eLife Ambassador of Good Practice in Science

Public involvement is key to closing the gap between research production and research use, and the only way to achieving ultimate transparency in science. The majority of life science research is not public-facing, but is funded by the public and impacts the community. We undertook a survey of researchers within the life sciences to better understand their views and perceived challenges to involving the public in their research. We had a valid response cohort of n=110 researchers, of whom 90% were primarily laboratory based. Using a mixed methods approach, we demonstrate that a top-down approach is key to progress life scientists from feeling positive towards public involvement to actually engaging in it. We demonstrate that characteristics inherent in the way that the life sciences research enterprise is currently organised, including the promotion system, hypercompetition, and time pressures, are major barriers to involving the public in the scientific process. Scientists are also apprehensive of becoming involuntarily involved in the current politicized climate, and publicity hype surrounding science nowadays, which makes them hesitant about sharing their early and in-progress research. The time required to deliberate study design and relevance; plan and build relationships for sustained involvement; provide and undertake training; and improve communication in the current research environment is often considered nonpragmatic, particularly for early career researchers. Our study suggests that a top-down approach of institutional incentives and infrastructure for public involvement in research is most effective at transitioning researchers from feeling positive towards public involvement to actually implementing it. Effective change towards a more open and inclusive model of life sciences will require more than just training and funding. Policy makers and institutions can greatly influence the implementation of public involvement in research through the working conditions and environment they promote.

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