Reviewing the use and effectiveness of arts-based approaches for public engagement with research


To raise awareness about a research topic, increase research impact, or help inform the research process and direction, taking an arts-based approach may help to engage the public.

What is the issue?

Researchers, research funders and policymakers are increasingly interested in supporting effective ways of engaging the public with research. One approach which has been taken is an arts-based approach, whereby different types of arts—for example the visual arts, performing arts or the use of games and immersive installation—are used to try and help explain research. This may form part of an effort to try and make research more stimulating, relatable and accessible to a wider range of audiences.

However, there is a lack of consolidated and systematic evidence on whether and how these approaches work in practice. To help respond to this gap in the knowledge base, The Healthcare Improvement Studies (THIS) Institute at Cambridge University commissioned RAND Europe to conduct a rapid review of the evidence on the use and effectiveness of arts-based approaches for public engagement with research.

How did we help?

We conducted a literature review that followed the principles of a rapid evidence assessment and complemented this with interviews with six experts in the field of arts-based public engagement. The primary interest of this review was on the use of arts-based engagement approaches in a health and healthcare context, but researchers also drew on learnings from other sectors.

What did we find?

The study revealed three key reasons as to why researchers may choose an arts-based approach for engaging the public: 1) to effectively raise awareness about a research topic, and 2) to increase research impact and 3) to help inform the research process and direction.

We also found:

  • Approaches to arts-based engagement encompass visual arts (e.g. photography, video animations, digital media, drawing, paintings, sculpture, comic books); performing arts (theatre, storytelling through audio dramas); and the use of games and immersive art installations. The choice of which is highly context dependent.
  • A variety of features of the arts-based approach and the context in which it unfolds influence the process of engagement and impacts thereof; such as resource availability, infrastructure and the skills and experience of the stakeholders involved. The importance of building trusting relationships and navigating power dynamics between researchers and artists, as well as considerations of autonomy versus control in the design of an engagement approach may also be particularly prominent when using the arts for engagement purposes.
  • When designing arts-based engagement approaches, it is important to consider that they can bring out experiences in stakeholders that may be challenging to process at an emotional level. Mitigations and management mechanisms to deal with potential unintended consequences should be included in the approach.
  • Building in evaluation components and stakeholder support for dissemination and uptake-related activities are important considerations for achieving and maximising impact.
  • There are practical barriers to robust evaluation of the effectiveness of arts-based approaches for public engagement, but there is some evidence that arts-based approaches can:
    • Help researchers to meet their goal of public engagement
    • Improve the quality or effectiveness of current and future research and public engagement activities
    • Help support wider research impact through arts-based public engagement activities