Research Hero: Fiona Murray

Reading time: 5 minutes

In the third feature of our Research Heroes series, Bulletin speaks to Fiona Murray, Public Engagement and Research Manager, about her work on raising the profile of the University’s research.

The University’s researchers have the opportunity to explore new ideas, work with the latest technology and learn about the world. However, being a researcher comes with challenges, including how to share research outside of the University. Fiona Murray has been helping researchers with this since she joined the University’s Research Office as a Public Engagement with Research Manager in 2019. Her role involves designing and delivering training courses, providing advice on public engagement and creating opportunities for researchers.

One of Fiona’s main remits is curating programmes of events at the Science Festival and during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The upcoming Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas Fringe programme of 48 shows with the Stand Comedy Club puts a researcher on stage with a standup comedian to discuss their more controversial or thought-provoking research with the public. The Science Festival takes place in April every year and Fiona’s team supported 30 events featuring researchers from across the University in 2024.

Before taking on her current role at the University, Fiona did a PhD in ecology at the University of Aberdeen and then spent six years working as a researcher.

“I was a lab-based researcher for six years and public engagement was something I got a lot out of and helped keep things in perspective. Research often goes wrong because you’re trying to do things that nobody’s done before, and there’s a lot of rejection associated with it, whether that’s grant applications not being successful or reviewers not liking your paper, whereas public engagement was always something that was very positive – and you do need that balance.”

Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

Finding common language

Fiona says doing public engagement events helps researchers to spread the word about their research and develop their communication skills.

“If our research doesn’t get out of the University, there’s no point doing it,” she explains. “This doesn’t mean you have to be doing public engagement. It could be any type of engagement but if we’re just talking about it within our institution or even within academia, then the potential that it has to be a force for good in the world wouldn’t be realised because no one knew anything about it.”

The majority of university research is funded by the taxpayer through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) or through charities and charitable trusts such as Cancer Research or the Wellcome Trust. Fiona says this means the University has a “moral obligation to tell people how we’re spending that money and that it is being well used”.

She adds: “It has knock on effects as well. We find people develop their communication skills through public engagement. If you want to do an interdisciplinary project and you’re talking to somebody who’s got a totally different academic background to you, then you need to find a common language and learn to cut out jargon. When you have been working closely with colleagues for so long you can lose track of what words are commonly used and what words are actually specific to your discipline.

“With more technical words it’s obvious, but then there are some words that have a meaning in everyday conversation that is quite different in the way it’s used in research. For instance, generally when people refer to a theory, it means an idea but in sciences, we would say hypothesis for that, and a theory is something that’s proven – the theory of gravity for example, or the theory of relativity.”

Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

Research practice

In January this year, the University launched a Participatory Research Network which now has around 100 people taking part. The network is for researchers who involve members of the public in the research from the start through setting objectives, hypotheses, designing the research project, getting involved in data collection and determining what it all means.

Fiona says there has been an increasing focus on involving publics more deeply in research in the past few years. This has raised questions as to when public engagement work has research ethics implications. The University’s first overarching Research Ethics Policy was published in 2022 and Fiona was involved in its development to ensure engagement was incorporated.

“Not all public engagement work needs to go through ethics committees but when it does it, it can be quite challenging for those groups,” she says. “All research projects have to go through ethics approval; it’s part of the general process. The question for public engagement is at what point does the public engagement work associated with that research also need to be part of the ethics review?”

She adds: “In some parts of the University ethic approvals, risk assessments and other general due diligence for participatory research and, where appropriate, public engagement have been done for a very long time so their reviewers are familiar with that. However, more funders are now asking for that kind of involvement in the work they fund, which means that more of the committees across the University will have to tackle this. Not every school has the expertise in-house to do that confidently at the moment, so we need to think about we support that kind of work.”

Diversity of research

Fiona is particularly proud of her work in linking colleges together more effectively to showcase the University’s wide range of research.

She explains: “The three colleges approach public engagement in quite a different way but we now have College leads for public engagement, which is a totally different role in each College but it’s someone who has a handle on what’s going on in that College. We meet once a month to discuss all the different things going on across the University.”

One result is that the Science Festival programme is now more diverse. Fiona adds: “It used to be the College of Science and Engineering that ran the University’s festival programme and in the last couple of years since bringing the coordination to ERO, demand for taking part in that programme has grown and grown. We now have people in all sorts of places such as Edinburgh College of Art, philosophy, medicine and people from social sciences all taking part as well so it’s a much better representation of the depth of work that goes on across the University.”

One of the three key pillars of the University’s Research and Innovation Strategy 2030 is engagement and Fiona says this is a welcome feature.

“Public engagement and engagement more broadly is prominent in the new strategy which signposts that the University values this work and will support people to do it well, and certainly when I was a researcher it was kind of seen as an add-on.”

She adds: “In terms of how the new strategy impacts our team, demand to work with us and to take part in our event programmes has been growing year on year so I suspect that that’s going to continue and then it’s a question of how we meet that demand, which is a nice problem to have.”

Photograph by Sam Ingram-Sills

Find out more

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas takes place in August this year.

Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas | The University of Edinburgh

Public Engagement with Research | The University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh Science Festival 2025

To find out more about how the University is supporting research managers like Fiona and the whole research community, please visit the Research and Innovation website and read the new strategy.

Research and Innovation | The University of Edinburgh