Do you have an agenda?

I used to like science but then it stopped being fun. I think maybe I like it again now.

Pre-teen participant, partnership with Science Oxford

From the start it should be openly acknowledged that, in many cases, a full understanding of the needs and values of your participants, what type of collaboration would be most meaningful, and what content and resources are most relevant and useful for them can be pushed aside if one partner comes with an inflexible science agenda.

This can often be driven by funding requirements, such as previously written and agreed proposals or strict allocations of resources. 

It is also easy to underestimate, or not be aware of, the implicit power imbalance that coming with a science or research agenda can cause. Particularly for individuals who identify as having low science capital or have had previous negative experiences with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), with education or authority.

But, if you are coming to a partnership with a STEM agenda or a STEM funded project, it does not need to result in science engagement being done ‘to’ participants. Participatory methods, alongside ongoing open and honest communication of time, budget or logistical constraints between partners from the outset – ideally before the project proposal has been written – can be beneficial, even transformational, for all involved.  

Within this section we explore some of the learning from different methods of community engagement, that were tried and tested between community and science centres partnerships within Explore Your Universe, alongside learning from outside the sector.

The balance was not always right first time, but the learning from these strategies for engagement is explored below and continues to emerge.

Lots of our children have never tried anything like this outside of school before. You can tell how much they are enjoying it; they didn't want to leave.

Community Partner, Oxford

Learning from beyond the sector

"What we used to do, by and large, was start from a funding stream... What we do now, is we start with the community.”

The Lightbox in Woking share the benefits and challenges of ‘starting from zero’ here:


One of the biggest challenges to participatory practice can be a strict focus on a specific agenda. For example, in Explore Your Universe Phase 4, sharing the science and stories of STFC is a core part of the programme, but the knowledge base of the community partners related to STFC science was limited. Training them in the science was outside the scope of this project. So, this project grappled with what co-production could and should be.

The children are invested from the start because they feel valued and listened to.

Practitioner, Xplore! Science Discovery Centre

For each individual project – with a limited timescale and resource – each partnership needs to find an ideal place along a co-production scale: from simple consultation, through to supporting a community partner’s independent interests. For examples of a co-production scale see our Working in Partnership section or visit our Case Studies section.

Within Explore Your Universe, different levels of co-production were chiefly determined by how well the community partner and science centre already knew each other, with greater depths of co-production being reached within the first year of the project for previously established partnerships. Other aspects such as changing contexts, priorities and capacity also played important roles.