In Germany, solutions to provide independent, participatory research support in response to civic concerns appeared on the agenda already 30 years ago. But it is merely as recently as five years ago that research engagement with civil society became prominent for a larger group of actors. One of the solutions to better interact with citizens has been provided through Science Shops. These are small entities often affiliated with universities that link civil society organisations with research institutions to carry out scientific research in multiple disciplines on behalf of local citizens. All Science Shops are interconnected through the Living Knowledge network. The Wissenschaftsladen Bonn (Bonn Science Shop), which operates its international outreach, lists 26 National Contact Points worldwide.
The fact that Science Shops respond to civil society’s needs for expertise and knowledge is a key element that distinguishes them from other knowledge transfer mechanisms. In practice, civil society organisations contact Science Shops, when seeking research support. They then engage in a collective search for a solution. This leads to new knowledge being generated, or at least existing knowledge being combined and adapted. This process takes the form of a true partnership without science prevailing in any way. Through their contacts, Science Shops provide a unique antenna function for society’s current and future demands on science.
Civil society organisations influencing EU policy
Following the 2011 FP7 funding programme tender on Science in Society, several German institutions became partners or coordinators in international research consortia. In addition to classic actors in the field, such as the University of Stuttgart, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Technical University of Berlin, European Academy of Technology and Innovation Assessment, and certain Fraunhofer Society institutes as well as atypical bodies (Bonn Science Shop, Zebralog and Theater Freiburg) played central roles in reaching out to link with civil society organisations. Notably, German political scientist Klaus Jacob, director of the Environmental Policy Research (FFU) Centre, joined the European Commission’s RRI expert group.
These organisations believe that research and education activities that integrate policymakers, industry, the public and the scientific community are key to shaping societal visions. Not only that, but they also think that they are important in supporting sustainable technological and social innovations that empower public participation in the current world transition process evoked in a report from the German Advisory Council for Global Change entitled World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability.
As a result, link civil society organisations are now paying greater attention to scientific policy. They are spurred by the sense that traditional scientific structures have inadequately tackled pressing challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, urbanisation and affordable health amid ageing demographics. In order to devise sustainable research and innovation solutions to these Grand Challenges, under the RRI umbrella, all stakeholders must collaborate throughout the process.
Public engagement and participation at all levels are vital to identifying practical solutions and developing RRI. Citizens must participate in generating, monitoring and performing research, collecting data and developing scenarios. Therefore, structured public engagement and link civil society organisations involvement in research and innovation have the potential to shape an innovation-friendly culture. They should and will be supported by further activities that enable easier access to scientific results, better uptake of research and innovation-inspired gender equality and ethics, and formal/informal scientific education.
There is already a track record of success stories in this field. For example, the Bonn Science Shop began to emphasise civil society & sustainability, environment & health, and labour markets in 1984. Its multidisciplinary research, results dissemination and education activities at the local, regional and national levels were evident as early as 1999 in several EU-supported projects. These include SCIPAS (Study & Conference on Improving Public Access to Science through Science Shops), CIPAST (Citizen Participation in Science and Technology), EFSUPS (Exploring the Ground: Fostering Scientific Understanding in Primary Schools), ComScience (an FP7 network project adding value to regional EU research dissemination efforts), SOUFFLEARNIG (a LEONARDO transfer of innovation project for SMEs), PERARES (Public Engagement with Research and Research Engagement with Society) or RiB (Region in Balance – a state-funded project on regional land use management). Today, the Bonn Science Shop boasts a 35-person gender-balanced staff.
A Science Shop as a mediator
Based on its experiences in international and national networking, public engagement activities and vocational and informal training, the Bonn Science Shop will act as a mediator in the validation of needs and constraints in responsible research and innovation practices related to the stakeholder group of civil society organisations for the RRI Tools project. In addition the Bonn Science Shop will be national hub for Germany, and as such being responsible for the upcoming consultation and training activities.
Going forwards, a truly knowledge-based society must integrate underrepresented local and experience-based wisdom with well-established expert and scientific theory. Social participation in research development, procedures and debate are vital to the ultimate success of the transition process towards a more sustainable society.
Norber Steinhaus is bord member of Wissenschaftsladen Bonn and Living Knowledge network of international science shop contact point
Featured image credit: Living Knowledge network
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