Public Outreach Engagement Tool (POET)

Public engagement is a key requirement of funding councils and supported by research-intensive universities as a means to inform the ‘public’ about cutting edge publicly-funded research. The European Commission has identified public engagement as one of the 6 keys of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

As part of this ‘impact agenda‘, universities, research labs, teams and projects are exploring the use of blogs, social media pages and a twitter presence in order to communicate the work that is being done and in order to establish a pathway to broadening societal involvement in research. Often however it is not clear who the ‘public’ in these public engagement initiatives is or how they respond to messages through these mediums.

A defining feature of social media is that it is based on networks of friends/followers and information is accessed through a ‘pull’ model where the participants semi-select which information they will be exposed to based on who it is they connect to. This poses a challenge for anyone trying to communicate beyond their existing circle of acquaintances, especially when trying to reach people who are not per-disposed to searching for the offered information. It is more likely that people seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs than information that challenges them. This communications barrier is therefore likely to be highest for the more controversial research projects which, within the RRI framework, have the most pressing need to reach out and communicate to people with opposing views.

A sizable body of research has looked at the network structure of on-line social networks and has modeled the information diffusion across such networks. While various of these studies have considered the impact of specific people in these networks who function as information hubs (communication focal points), the affective value of the communicated message is treated as of neutral value to recipients. Experimental/observational studies of social media information spreading have focused on commercial information (i.e. advertisements), political messages and the illusive nature of posts that ‘go viral’. The success of science outreach communication by research groups has received far less attention so far.

Aims and Objectives of the POET project:
This pilot project aims to test the feasibility of using social network analysis tools that are being developed at Horizon Digital Economy Research, in conjunction with qualitative text analysis to ascertain the effectiveness of social media based science-public engagement efforts in reaching various ‘publics’.


Semi-structured interviews, and qualitative analysis, of the way in which STEM researchers at the University of Nottingham currently use social media, especially Twitter.

Network analytics of Twitter usage as function of department and role at the University of Nottingham.

Co-design workshops with social media using academics from the University of Nottingham to establish the requirements they would like for a ‘public outreach evaluation tool’.

This project is part funded by a grant from the University of Nottingham Science Technology and Society Priority Group.

Project research team consisting of:
Dr Ansgar Koene, Horizon Digital Economy Research (PI)
Prof. Brigitte Nerlich, School of Sociology and Social Policy, Institute for Science and Society
Dr. Sarah Hartley, School of Biosciences
Dr. Michael Brown, Horizon Digital Economy Research
Dr. Carmen McLeod, Life Sciences
Louise Dynes, School of Biosciences
Penny Polson, Horizon Digital Economy Research

At the beginning of 2016, Andrew Moffat (PhD student at the Horzon CDT) contributed to the POET project by performing analyses on Twitter data collected using the POET tool to explore the potential of the tool for quantifying the public outreach effect of Twitter use by participants.

Citizen-centric approaches to Social Media analysis