Identifying research themes for public engagement in natural history museums

By Heather King - May 2014


Seakins, A., & Dillon, J. (2013). Exploring research themes in public engagement within a natural history museum: A modified Delphi approach. International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, 3(1), 52–76.

This paper discusses a modification of the Delphi technique as a tool for bridging research and practice. The technique was used to build consensus among a variety of stakeholders on the subject matter of a proposed Ph.D. study, but it could also be used to identify a focus for other research or collaborative projects.

The Delphi technique is a multistage method of building consensus among diverse stakeholders. Several rounds of structured questionnaires are completed with each round building on the results of the last. Initially, participants respond to a set of questions or rank potential themes by importance. Next, their answers are collated, and an anonymised synthesis is shared among the group. Participants then reflect and reconsider their views and again respond to the questions or rank the themes. The process continues until respondents do not change their positions, and a degree of consensus is created. This study introduced modifications to the Delphi technique: Participants attended a discussion workshop before the ranking exercise and went through two rounds of ranking rather than continuing until they did not change their positions.

Key benefits of this approach include the involvement of stakeholders who are geographically dispersed; anonymity; and validity of the final consensus in that the group, rather than an individual, decides relevance. Critics, however, note that more open discussions allow for greater collaboration and ensure some degree of accountability for opinions.

Research Design

The Delphi process reported in this paper involved seven staff members from the Natural History Museum in London. These staff members were asked to identify possible themes for a Ph.D. study focused on the museum’s Darwin Centre. The rationale for including museum stakeholders in the research decision making process was threefold: to ensure that the research was closely tied to questions of interest and importance to museum practitioners, to integrate the practical expertise of the staff who had been involved in development of the Darwin Centre, and to build interest and support amongst staff for academic research.

Following two rounds of the process, the following research themes were identified, in rank order:

  1. What is the impact of meeting and interacting with a real scientist?
  2. What visions of science are portrayed [by events in the Darwin Centre]? What are the impacts of these?
  3. What are scientific role models? How are museum scientists role models?
  4. To what extent does the Darwin Centre humanize science?
  5. What is the impact of public engagement on the scientist taking part?
  6. Does the Darwin Centre support science as culture?
  7. Does the Darwin Centre support or challenge people’s worldviews?

As a result of this process, the lead author of this paper, Amy Seakins, began work on a Ph.D. study to examine the effect that meeting and engaging with museum scientists has on students aged 16–18 and on adults. She plans to complete her thesis in 2013.

Implications for Practice

The ranking process of the Delphi approach reveals how a set of stakeholders prioritise a set of themes. This approach fosters buy-in from these stakeholders and is a useful exercise for bringing people together intellectually.

Whilst the study reported in this paper identified key issues of concern in one museum, the approach has the potential for use by other institutions and, indeed, more broadly across the field of informal science education. Involving key stakeholders in identifying a topic can help them to see the practical value of the resulting project, preventing the research from becoming isolated in an ivory tower.

The full paper provides a detailed overview of the steps taken and the analysis of the answers in each round leading to the selection of a final question. The process offers a case study to others wishing to use the Delphi technique to guide their decision-making processes.

A caveat: Given the inevitable variety of views among stakeholders and the need for negotiation to generate consensus, the resulting research topic may be somewhat generic and not necessarily guided by theory. In this case, the resulting study would be closer to evaluation rather than to research.