Public Engagement as a Priority for Research

  • Portait of Gerrit Rauws

    Gerrit Rauws

    Director for the King Baudouin Foundation

Gerrit Rauws is a Director at the King Baudouin Foundation. He manages the Foundation’s programmes on Health and Biomedical Research, European engagement and Social engagement. From 1984 to 1989 he worked as a researcher at the University of Leuven, where he received a Ph.D. in Physical Geography.


Changing rationales behind public engagement

I believe that public engagement will be an important issue for research foundations across Europe. The King Baudouin Foundation has had a lengthy history on working with public engagement, for example in the Meeting of Minds project which involved 126 citizens in 9 European countries in discussions around Brain Science ten years ago. However in recent years we have seen a shift in our focus when it comes to public engagement.

In previous projects our key focus was on getting the citizen views on various aspects of research into research policy from a democratic frame of mind. Our thinking was that important research areas, like genetic testing or brain research needed the views of the public for research to be legitimate.

In today’s complex research environment engagement forms a vital part of the system of checks and balances. The truth remains that the European scientific research community remains sometimes quite closed from society.

The ethical and social discussions of certain research topics are important for the future of science and I strongly believe that engagement needs to be mainstreamed and move beyond pilot activities. Engagement is first and foremost a governance issue.

Although democratic accountability is of course still a relevant driver for public engagement, as a Foundation we have increasingly found ourselves looking at public engagement in a different way. My chief argument for engagement today is not that it makes research more legitimate, but rather that it may improve the quality of the research itself.

Engagement in research is thus about more than policy, it is also about the practice of research and the vital role that citizens can play in the research process. Intertwined in this debate is the fact that Europe and the world face some extremely difficult problems. These ‘wicked problems’ are interdependent, complex and changing and for these reasons engagement is all the more important in finding solutions. In some cases it is very obvious where citizens can play a role; for example cases where the issues have a local component and the citizens are affected stakeholders. There are, however, areas where it is less immediately obvious what the citizens can add.


Why should we engage the public?

So why should private Foundations like the King Baudouin Foundation or public funders across Europe spend their scarce research funding on engagement? I think that the reasons for engagement are compelling, even from a strictly financial perspective.

Firstly, there is a communications argument for engagement. If researchers are pushed to interact with non-professionals, this obliges them to communicate in another way. Translating an academic text from one language to another forces the writer to make sure that the content is clear and concise, and in the same way engagement helps researchers to clarify their function. Engagement is thus a useful communications exercise and not a distraction. Engagement enhances the ability of scientists to get their message through to different audiences and helps ensure robust thinking.

Secondly, engagement is beneficial to the individual researcher. One of the things I am most enthusiastic about when it comes to engagement is seeing the interaction between citizens and individual researchers. A decade ago when we ran the Meeting of Minds process I met plenty of sceptical Brain researchers who were convinced that citizens had little to contribute. This (and many other projects) has taught me that the best way to convince sceptical researchers is to involve them. At the start they are often convinced that the topic is too difficult for citizens. Each time I have seen remarkable interactions between citizens and researchers, where both sides have learnt a lot. I have seen how the experience of engagement can influence the careers of researchers. The questions raised by citizens change how researchers carry out research and how they communicate, but also where their research priorities are. Engagement can shape and form the basis for a successful academic career. My experience tells me that engagement leads to better research as a result of these new and unexpected questions.

Finally, there are benefits from engagement which accrue to the research institutions rather than individual researchers. Engagement is part of a wider systematic change in how research institutions operate. Engagement needs to be made institutional to give the full benefits. The truth is that for a long time private companies have had someone who is responsible for CSR or quality control. Research institutions need similar governance and interaction instruments, appropriate to their unique circumstances. Engaging the public is a vital part of this and needs to become part of the corporate culture of research institutions, in order to achieve the aspirations of the Responsible Research and Innovation agenda.

When should we engage citizens?

There are perhaps certain research areas where it is more difficult for citizens to make a difference. However, I do not think that there is any area of science or innovation which is inherently unsuitable for engagement. In the past decade we have seen European projects on topics like brain science, nanotechnology, and climate change. It is clear that complexity is not an insurmountable barrier to engagement. There is therefore no reason to discount any research discipline off hand.

We still need more good examples of engagement shifting the scientific research culture. In the area of biomedical research I feel that engagement has become more common as part of the agenda setting. In research around biomedical issues scientists are increasingly aware that their end users matter, not just at the final stages of research, but at every level. In this field it has become clear that the priorities of people who live with disorders matter for the final results. There have been numerous examples of negative effects if the research agendas are out of sync with the needs, wants and lived experiences of those citizens affected by health conditions. This has made it increasingly easy to make the case for engagement in this field. It is visibly beneficial both to the researchers and to the research results. We need to see this shift in opinions in other fields as well and I am convinced that we will do so in the years that come.

I see the role of foundations like the King Baudouin Foundation as helping to set the agenda within the R&I community, as well as providing practical engagement tools and sharing good practices. As significant funders of research we need to walk the talk. The shift towards a more engaging research system is a gradual process, one where Foundations working together will play an important role in moving from one-off pilots to more established practice. The R&I community is increasingly international and so we need to develop a European engagement community. I am glad to see the European Commission playing an active role in fostering such a community through its work around RRI and Horizon 2020. The Societal challenges that the Commission has identified are both scientific problems and societal problems. This is why broadening the range of expertise considered in R&I is important.

In the coming years I believe that we will see engagement move from an experimental activity to becoming part of governance toolbox of research institutions. My advice for unsure colleagues is to just do it. Engagement is still a developing practice. It involves trial and error. Don’t wait, start somewhere. There shouldn’t be any off-limit topics, there is always something that can be added by bringing in outside perspectives. A growing number of organisations are signing up to the principles of Responsible Research and Innovation and in the future it will become difficult to stay relevant without finding ways to relate to the views of the public.