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Associating citizens with the scientific process from the start

We need to reconcile the value that societies attribute to research and the process of academic evaluation

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has become a new buzzword at the core of European science policy discourses. Yet, RRI has remained rather vaguely defined. This notion relates to how research could be steered in a direction that more adequately addresses diverse kinds of societal challenges, such as climate change or food security. One of the many facets of the diverse RRI package should include is public engagement in research and innovation. Today, one of the biggest challenges is to find diverse, productive and sustainable ways of associating citizens with the scientific process from the start.

‘Response-able’ research

Opening-up research towards society’s needs is often seen as a central element to make it more “response-able”. Expectations that science will be capable of finding solutions to societal problems are indeed high. As a recent policy report underlined, it is anticipated that public engagement in science will “nurture greater innovation and creativity, and make it more likely that research and innovation are directly targeted at solving societal challenges.”

The ideals underlying RRI seem self-evident. Indeed, aren’t openness and embracing society’s concern not essential to maintain research’s legitimacy in democratic societies? However, integrating societal actors, their values and ways of knowing might prove more complex than anticipated. This approach may require new arrangements at the core of academia, concerning the dominant values guiding research choices and researchers’ careers, but also the practice of research itself.

Tensions when integrating societal actors

What initially sounds like an attractive idea–being more responsive towards society–has encountered both explicit and implicit resistance from the world of research. In our work, we investigated how transdisciplinary teams–including both academic researchers and societal actors–seeking funding in the field of sustainability research in a major Austrian funding scheme actually collaborated in practice. We identified several tensions and resistances to this call for opening up research.

First, through their institutions and careers, researchers are under pressure to aims towards the ideal of producing excellence research. This largely follows the logic of the new public management of research, whereby competitiveness for grants, efficiency and top publications are key indicators of research quality. In this context, it is specialisation which, most of the time, gets rewarded.

Navigating between the two value regimes–that is ‘opening up towards society’ versus ‘the focus on excellence’–posed quite a challenge to researchers and their projects. Young researchers in particular perceived as risky the investment in terms of time and resources that is necessary to enter a truly collective knowledge production process. The latter requires crossing the boundaries of academia in an environment where only classical academic achievements are prioritised.

Second, we realised that how both parties–scientists and societal partners–perceived “close relations between science and society” in fundamentally different ways; even though both parties agreed it was important to have such relationship. Yet, the nature of this relationship was rarely at the focus of explicit discussion and problems, most of the time, were not addressed. Implementing RRI would, thus, require some learning from both sides to develop a shared understanding of the research process.

Lack of questioning

Third, we also found that even societal participants in the research projects did not necessarily question the tacit hierarchy between science and society. The idea that certain kinds of knowledge are “better” than others proved too deeply entrenched in our societal order. As a result, putting societal partners’ view on par with these of researchers during question formulation or even more so in knowledge generation appeared difficult.

Finally, societal actors could only participate if they received an invitation from a scientific partner. And if they could agree to the scientific partner’s framing of the problem. However, being able to participate in framing the questions to be addressed is essential in orienting both research and innovation along societal needs and concerns. Keeping societal partners and their concerns out of the orientation phase of the research process limits the potential for change and innovation in research.

Collaborations that were perceived as most successful were often mainly focusing on collecting or giving access to data. The later would then be reorganised and validated by researchers. This is when societal actors got most closely involved in some parts of the research process. While this was an important moment of interaction, at the same time societal actors were then left out of the next step involving further analysis of the data. In such a scenario, societal actors were initially closely involved and yet subsequently left out of the core of knowledge generation.

Time for change

To harvest the promises of research being better oriented towards meeting societal concerns, several changes need to happen in the research and higher education systems. Policymakers would need to better reflect on how stimulating public engagement in research and innovation relates to the rather narrowly-defined ideal of seeking excellence in research. This would mean widening the (e)valuation practices in research defining what good research actually is.

In short: we need to establish a dialogue to reconcile the value that societies attributes to research and the process of academic evaluation. This would lead to fundamental changes. These would then, in turn, have to find their ways into the education system and the career structures of scientists to shape up the tacit ideas of what good science is.

Finally, this requires a gradual shift in deeply entrenched societal orders, which make engaging with science still difficult. Taking the call for RRI seriously would thus mean reconsidering research cultures and practices reconsidering research cultures and practices beyond isolated initiatives.

Ulrike Felt

Ulrike is a professor of science and technology studies and dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Featured image credit: Geralt via Pixabay

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