Is Europe ready for citizen participation in science policy?

Science increasingly deals with challenges that concern society at large such as climate change, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, demographic change or resource scarcity. Initiatives such as the Science in Society programme of the European Commission therefore aim at fostering dialogue between science, politics and civil society. But according to the final report of a EU-funded project focusing on science policy monitoring called MASIS “there is only modest implementation of citizen- or CSO-initiated activities with substantial influence on policy making related to science and technology in Europe as a whole.” Civil society participation in science “has so far mainly been limited to specific cases,” says Steffi Ober project leader of the publicly funded civil society platform for a change in research (Zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform Forschungswende).

But there is a will to increase citizen participation, in countries like Germany. For example, Ober’s organisation invited high-ranking German representatives of policy, science and civil society organisations (CSO) to meet in Berlin on 31st May 2013. The focus of their discussion is on how CSOs may get involved in research policy. A consortium of German CSOs is due to present ten “demands of civil society on scientific and research policy”. These include more “participation of CSOs in the formulation of research questions and programs and representation in bodies of publicly funded scientific institutions” or “transparent agenda processes for the list of priorities of public research funding”.

“It’s all about [answering] the question: ‘how can science serve the aims of society’,” Ober explains. While connections between industry and science are tight in Germany—as, in general, in industrialised countries—civil society’s access to research policy is much less well established, she believes. Involving CSOs in setting research agendas will not only add valuable expertise but also guarantee continuous participation in the policy making process. The approach will contribute to help Germany on its way to a sustainable society, as proposed in a flagship report by the German Advisory Council on Global Change published in 2011.

Citizen participation is essential

Experts consider it a good timing because of the forthcoming federal election to bring together the major actors in Germany. Moreover, “the large NGOs in Germany are certainly able to pursue research policy”, Norbert Steinhaus says. He works at the Science Shop Bonn, Germany, and is involved in the EU-Project PERARES, which uses various formats of science debates to draft research requests of civil society. However, he urges the organisations to “keep in touch with their bases”.

Indeed, the way consultation with wider society is designed matters. A system, that enables professional dialogue between scientists, politicians and civil society organisations “has advantages”, Steinhaus adds, but a top-down system may also “hamper creativity and flexibility.” A bottom-up approach, such as facilitated by Science Shops—a concept originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s—may be more helpful on a local scale. With such approach, citizens and local civil society directly can find academic partners for solving problems through scientific research.

Other experts believe CSO are not to be underestimated. “I think CSOs should be recognised as full actors in research and innovation. We need to exploit their vast potential”, Claudia Neubauer comments. She is co-author of a report on the “Participation of Civil Society Organisations in Research” and director of the French not-for-profit organisation Fondation Sciences Citoyennes, which aims at empowering citizens in scientific and technological choices. In France, three regions have set up participatory research programmes supporting projects with at least an academic and a civil society partner. “We have made very positive experiences [with these projects],” Neubauer says. “Citizens and CSOs should not be underestimated in their capacity to serve the common good”, she adds.

Increased transparency and accountability, and more robust policies

The benefits of such approaches are manifold. Involving citizens and CSOs extends the circle of people who talk about research beyond science and industry. Furthermore, it will help increase transparency in science policy, Neubauer contends, as a means to make clear which actors are involved and how they influence the policy making process. In her view, a good example is the EU-funded project VOICES that includes public consultations on urban waste in all 27 European countries. She is, however, doubtful whether such approaches will be generally integrated into research and research policy.

Civil society participation in science not only gives way for more democracy, but may also make the implementation of a new technology more robust and better “by hearing more voices”, Maja Horst says. The science communication expert and head of the department of media, cognition and communication at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, also believes that research and research policy become more accountable. “The more people you involve, the less likely there are issues you haven’t thought of before”, she says. “But it’s no guarantee.” While involving CSOs in research policy has not been done in Denmark, the country was previously on the forefront of public participation. “There is a particularly Scandinavian tradition of participation”, Horst explains.

Even in Denmark, Horst explains, there are only few consensus conferences run by the Board of Technology, which formerly received public funding, directly influencing policies. That was also the case of ‘GM nation?’, a debate on genetically modified crops, organised in the UK in 2003. It was later criticised of having had only little influence on the actual policy. Yet, according to a report, published by the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre for Public Dialogue in Science and Innovation, the UK has taken leadership in the area.

Opening the door to greater citizen involvement

Horst is convinced that the Danish consensus conferences opened a dialogue and provided citizens and NGOs with “legitimate access to speak their mind.” Similarly, Norbert Steinhaus considers the public dialogue to be essential in a knowledge-based society but, at the same time, emphasises the need for political engagement with citizens’ requests. “Otherwise people get frustrated”, he says. This is why in France, the Sciences Citoyennes foundation proposes so-called citizens conventions that are designed to force politicians to actually comment on the recommendations created by this participatory initiatives, according to Claudia Neubauer. As for the German case, Steinhaus hopes, that the project will have a long-lasting effect. “We need to keep the door open”, he says.

Featured image credit: Hannes Bever

Constanze Böttcher

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One thought on “Is Europe ready for citizen participation in science policy?”

  1. It may be interesting to consider how scientists think about public participation in science policy. At the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston (14-18 February 2013) Sharon Dunwoody from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I (from the Research Center Juelich in Germany) presented some findings regarding scientists’ beliefs and attitudes towards the public, using data from several surveys (2005-2012) of altogether more than 3,500 active researchers in Germany, the UK, France, the USA, Japan, Taiwan and Mainland China.

    The survey results indicate that most scientists are not very enthusiastic but rather ambivalent or mildly negative about giving the public a say in the “regulation of scientific activities and applications” and “decision-making on research policy”. The results are also disappointing for those who expect a change in the relevant attitudes of the scientific community by the generation change of researchers. On average, younger researcher did not show more sympathy for public participation in research policy than older researchers.

    Most researchers I know (including me) intuitively tend to assume that in an “ideal” scientific world science alone would control the research agenda and the regulation of research. This world does not exist – and if it would it would probably not be that “ideal” for society at large. Looking for useful strategic alliances, researchers and research organizations will happily “engage” the public in their activities as long as this serves their research goals. But they will (try to) insist on “academic freedom” when facing public demands that interfere with these goals.