The many forms and options of public engagement in research and innovation – experiences and expectations

  • Portait of Leonhard Hennen

    Leonhard Hennen

    Dr. Leonhard Hennen, Sociologist, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany for Institute of Technology Assesment and Systems Analysis

The engage2020 consortium has produced a report on the scientific foundations of public engagement (PE) in research and innovation (R&I) providing a sketch of the historical background of the development of PE as an element of a “new contract of science with society”, of the scientific and political discourse on PE in R&I, of the broad scope of PE practice and on the expectations and achievements connected with public engagement in R&I. The fields of practice covered in the report are participatory Technology Assessment, Engagement of CSOs in R&I, user involvement in innovations, involvement of employees in workplace innovation, science shops and citizen science.

A changing relation of science and society

The perception of the interface of science and society has changed fundamentally in recent years: science is no longer regarded as being kind of a ‘meta-social sphere of objective rationality’. Research and innovation have to legitimize themselves in the light of public needs and values and scientific knowledge production is embedded in societal debates and practices on societal problems of all kinds. This situation is no longer regarded as marking a crisis of science or a crisis of experts but as an opportunity to come to new and productive forms of cooperation between science and society. The involvement of laypeople in research and innovation or public engagement with science is a social experiment going on all levels of the R&I process, from R&I policy making to concrete R&I projects. It is no longer about scientific knowledge being put forward to the public in order to “make them understand”, or about a dialogue of expert knowledge and lay knowledge in order to make them learn about each other, it is rather about what has been coined a “co-production of knowledge” – a process that involves evaluation of scientific knowledge in the light of public knowledge and vice versa.

Political Commitment to Public Engagement in R&I

The central issue with regard to public engagement on any level of decision making is the relation of the public engagement exercise to the established decision making structures. This comprises the issue of knowledge being introduced by society as well as the commitment of decision makers to the process and outcomes of public engagement. Commitment to processes of public engagement is decisive to produce desired effects in policy making. Commitment could be enforced by formal rules about how to precede with public engagement outcomes in decision making processes but it will mainly be dependent on political factors that normally are not within the reach of public engagement procedures themselves. These conditions will vary case by case. On a general level, however, political culture has changed in a direction that enforces political commitment to public engagement, as – among others – has been demonstrated by approaches to new forms of governance and the fostering of the concept of “responsible research and innovation” in EU research policy.

Roles of the public on the different levels of R&I processes

The way how the public can be involved in R&I and the roles representatives of the public can take are manifold. Despite a growing interest in PE and a growing number of experiments the broad scope of ways to include citizens in R&I is not fully developed yet and there is a lot to do in terms of opening up R&I to the public in more than symbolic but practically meaningful ways.

1) Setting the R&I agenda – It is possible for civil society organisations (CSOs) or lay people to be involved in the process of setting the research agenda of (national) R&I programmes – e.g. through the mediation of a Technology Assessment (TA)[1]  institution – thus providing a knowledge base for decision makers in parliaments and governmental bodies. However, although CSOs have asked for involvement in order to orientate the research towards societal needs, advisory boards still comprise mostly representatives of the scientific community and experts from related industries

2) Supervising and assessing R&I – The public can participate in the supervision and assessment of R&I programmes and projects in various ways. Societal groups can contribute to R&I policy making by discussing ethical aspects, possible risks and benefits and thus contribute the socially sound decision making with regard to research programmes or regulatory approaches to R&I. Advisory boards including CSOs can observe the ethical or e.g. environmental principles in research processes. With regard to workplace innovation, employees can oversee the effects of the innovation processes on workforce’s needs and interests.

3) Actively initiating and funding research – In recent years, a growing number of cases of research initiatives coming from CSOs and lay citizens have been observed. Especially in the sector of medical research patient organisations take an active role in defining research which should help to explore possible treatments for rare diseases. Another way for initiating research is the science shop model, where researchers offer support to communities, CSOs or groups of citizens to define and set up research that serves their own needs

4) Shaping the R&I process – There are public engagement activities which are designed in a way to give opportunities for lay people to put their specific knowledge into a research process. Researchers and citizens can cooperate in order to define a specific research question, or to discuss research results, the validity with regard to the problems-perceived by communities and the solutions needed and risks involved. It is also possible for users to be involved in shaping the R&I process. In the field of software design, for example, they can contribute with their practical knowledge to inspire improvement of technologies or new R&I innovation processes.

5) Gather data –Lay people can play the role of co-researchers (and not only observers) by making observations and interpretations in research fields like meteorology, astronomy, environmental monitoring, biodiversity research, brain research and many others. In most cases scientists are the ones to define the research process and the role of lay people is to contribute to the research with everyday life skills or common sense knowledge. Lay people can also be trained to become involved in more specific research tasks.

Motivations and achievements of public engagement

PE strives for more than just a dialogue between science and society it moreover strives for cooperation and joint problem solving. Public engagement can be viewed as a way of empowering those whose opinions are normally disregarded in the R&I process. This can be considered as an element of democratising R&I policy making. Civil society actors get access to knowledge that they can make use of in their own interests Citizens are enabled to develop (innovative) paths for problem solving as well as to argue in favour of their position with a scientific backing. Lay people are not considered as “those outside” but rather as co-creators of innovation. By being engaged in science and research, civil society can experience science as something that they can have a say in (the political aspect), they can use (research on behalf of citizens or CSOs), and they can do themselves (citizen or crowd science). Public engagement – done properly with a strong commitment of policy makers and scientists – can contribute to “public understanding of science” in a way that is more appropriate to an open equitable relation of science and society than the usual top-down approach of “educating” the public or just promoting an abstract belief in the “blessings” of research and innovation.

End notes:

[1] Technology Assessment is an analytic and democratic practice which aims at broadening the knowledge base of policy decisions by comprehensively analysing the socio-economic preconditions as well as the possible social, economic and environmental impacts of the implementation of new technologies. It is thus employed at the interface of science, society and policy making (For more information, See the website of PACITA project (Parliaments and Civil Society in Technology Assessment):