Policies and Activities Supporting Societal Engagement in Research and Innovation

  • Portait of Grace Mbungu

    Grace Mbungu

    Junior Researcher at Dialogik for Dialogik - a non-profit institute for communication and cooperation research


All Consortium members[1] of the “Engage 2020” were engaged in a 6 months research exercise of mapping and scanning policies and activities that support societal actors in research and innovation in Europe and beyond. What resulted from this extensive research was a comprehensive Report on Current Praxis of Policies and Activities Supporting Societal Engagement in Research and Innovation. The report will soon be available at: www.engage2020.eu. This blog outlines the main features of the Report.

A Brief Overview of the Results 

The results detailed in this report show that there is developing support for societal engagement in research and innovation activities at all four levels of the research and innovation process: policy formation, programme development, project definition and research and innovation activity. Moreover, we found that there is growing interest at the European Union level to engage citizens in research and innovation activities. Despite this positive progress, however, we also found that there are many challenges to engaging societal actors in research and innovation that make it very difficult for actors such as: Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), citizens, affected populations, consumers, employees, and users to take part in the process. Henceforth, besides outlining these challenges, the Consortium also identified several elements that can be put in place, strengthened, or adapted to achieve the intended results of engaging society in research and innovation activities.

Why Societal Engagement

Many experts believe that Societal Challenges can only be tackled effectively if a wide range of societal actors are fully engaged in the process. In the last decade, participatory approaches gained particular importance in the field of science and technology policy making. A majority of policy makers have come to acknowledge that technocracy alone cannot address the challenges society faces today, prompting the search for new forms of governance in the field of science, innovation, and technology.

Engaging societal actors in research and innovation activities is deemed beneficial to scientific scholars, policy-makers, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), researchers and the general public. Societal engagement can be pursued for both democratic reasons (citizens having a say on research agendas) and instrumental reasons (more appropriate research results by including societal knowledge, ideas, and capacities) as well as for higher awareness of science and technology among citizens. This kind of engagement is deemed especially important in tackling the Societal Challenges that Europe and its citizens face today. However, regardless of the known benefits of socital enagement, there remains several  barrier to this practice.

Barriers to Societal Engagement

We cannot claim to have exhausted all policies and activities that support societal engagement of in research and in innovation in Europe and beyond, but from the selected policies and activities some possible gaps and barriers to societal engagement, which are outlined below were identified

  1. Lack of time and resources
  2. Lack of training and skills
  3. The underdeveloped culture of societal engagement:
  4. Lack of proper engagement infrastructure

Other barriers may include: conflicts of local, national, and international cultures with the engagement process; perceived violation of autonomy and freedom of researchers and research institutions; lack of sufficient policies and activities that support societal engagement in research and innovation; and last but not least, a missing translation of (generic) outcomes of public engagement into policy making.


Proposed Policy and Activity that Support Societal Engaement

Following the identification of the above barriers, several elements that can be put in place, strengthened or further developed to achieve the intended results of engaging society in the research and innovation process were proposed by the Consortium partners based on the scanned reports, interviews, and contacts of the Consortiums networks. Below are some examples:

  1. Rules and regulations

The implementation of rules or the development of certain regulations is the most formal effort to integrate public engagement in R&I policy making and practice. Rules and regulation are needed and could be integrated at the level of policy making (in our scheme: policy formation and program development).

  1. Funding and other incentives

Funding constitutes a very effective lever of direct research activity. Thus, conditions for funding can be elaborated to strengthen and broaden societal engagement activities in EU-funded research.

  1. Infrastructure, institutions, networks

Setting up institutions or enlarging the scope of existing EU-institutions for societal engagement would be a powerful measure towards public engagement within the EC. Such institutions dedicated to societal engagement could form an important knowledge and cooperation base which could be used to connect questions and demands from EC-staff, researchers, and citizens. Moreover, such networks have the potential to fulfill an important networking function between the existing national societal engagement systems and the European Commission.

  1. Training

Societal engagement is a demanding process and to achieve the intended results, the actors involved need to be effectively trained and proper information communicated to them in a timely manner. It is especially important to directly address and educate the various groups of actors involved in the engagement process. For example, the European commission staff, scientists, and public actors.

  1. Promotion

Societal engagement is still a new area of work for many actors; therefore there is real need for promotional activities and structures. These could usefully be combined with other roles and functions. It is important to raise awareness of societal engagement among key stakeholders; who often have a non-existent or limited understanding of the concept through journals/ conferences and annual conference on STI governance.

  1. Projects and Studies

Many current projects implemented at the EU level with the support of the EC incorporate forms of PE in their design and implementation, thus creating open and transparent processes for the inclusion of a broader set of societal actors, as well as increasing legitimacy and validity. Particularly, such processes help ensure that the typical powerful stakeholders are not the sole influencers on deciding about future research topics and priorities. Needless to say, however, more needs to be done in regards to evalutions and duplication of the best practices to maximiize impact.

To conclude, it is important that citizens have their views and ideas heard at all four levels of the research and innovation process.Timing of such engagements is however crucial. Early involvement is key to ensuring that all citizens needs and views are used in a timely manner in the decision making process. Early involvement and engagement of citizens, especially those most affected, has the potential to add value to the projects by factoring in citizen’s needs, concerns, and aspiration’s into the proposed projects as well as in reaching consensus on the needs and the benefit of the project.

Grace Mbungu

[1]The Engage2020 Consortium:Teknologirådet – Danish Board of Technology (DBT)  (Project Coordinator);,Denmark; Karlsruhe InstitutfürTechnologie (KIT), Germany; The Involve Foundation, UK, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG), The Netherlands; Applied Research and Communications Fund (ARC Fund), Bulgaria; and DIALOGIK: Non-profit Institute for Communication and Cooperation Research, Germany