Public Engagement Practices in European Commission-funded projects: Fostering Socio-Scientific Collaborations

In their latest publication, SEERC partners Maria Michali and Prof. George Eleftherakis, examine Public Engagement implementation within the context of European Commission (EC)-funded projects that aim to foster inclusive R&I.

Oct 6, 2022

In their latest publication, SEERC partners Maria Michali and Prof. George Eleftherakis, examine Public Engagement (PE) implementation within the context of European Commission (EC)-funded projects that aim to foster inclusive and human-centric Research and Innovation (R&I). Occasionally, R&I practices have been criticized towards their ability to respond to genuine societal concerns. Among others, there is an increased distress regarding the connection of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) processes to society, given also the empowerment of R&I. Are these processes innovative and responsive enough in order to create changes that abide in inclusivity? Scientific practices are often perceived to distance themselves from the concrete needs of society without tangible and fundamental consideration of the perspectives and expectations of a variety of societal groups. The establishment of a democratized science and innovation with a human-centric design is a necessity that has called for further dynamic measures. There is a clear interest on the latter coming from society itself; European Citizens (55%) consider that public dialog is necessary and they are eager to undertake shared responsibilities and engage in democratic scientific systems. In addition, issues might also arise in different stages of R&I where the sector and its practices refrain to minimize the gap of connection and include more actors for consistent and innovative policy-making.

As a response to these implications, the EC has funded many projects aiming to implement Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) into the European Research Area (ERA), and the R&I systems at institutional, national and territorial level. The six RRI keys (pillar approach of RRI) refer to: Public Engagement, Gender Equality, Science Education, Ethics, Open Access and Governance. Regarding Public Engagement (PE), the EC fosters well-structured initiatives within EC-funded projects aiming to bring citizens closer to STI and R&I under various approaches. Ultimately, PE enhances and establishes multi-actor dialogues in order to achieve mutual understanding through co-creation processes that lead to innovative outcomes and provide input to policy agendas. The adoption of the Quadruple Helix approach within these processes also encourages the interactive collaboration between the four important sectors/ helices of academia, industry, government and civil society. But how is the PE actually addressed and which are the engaging activities that end up being implemented?

After a qualitative and thematic analysis of 17 PE practices in 5 EC-funded projects, the study finds that RRI PE activities vary and will take different forms depending on the needs of engagement. Most of the performed PE activities are implemented ‘downstream’ in the form of events, learning activities and dialogues that enable public communication and consultation. The absence of ‘upstream’ and ‘midstream’ PE here seems to complicate the potential of societal actors to have a leading role in R&I practices and define directions for future research. Ultimately, previous concerns on how performed PE activities allow little space to public participation and/ or might also attempt to ensure legitimacy for their proposed actions might be unintentionally verified.

Citizen Science (CS) refers to the voluntary participation of the public in research processes by forming collaborations in order to conduct data collection, experiments, result analysis and more. The study here finds that CS is not so systematically performed within EC-funded projects. When performed, the most common CS methods used are usually implemented through digital interfaces (apps, online toolkits, etc.). Although digital and distant engagement is to be expected, especially in the post-COVID era, it raises some questions as to how inclusive it can actually be (given the digital divide in different geographical regions). Moreover, CS is usually applied in order to raise awareness on specific scientific fields and by targeting science communication to the public and literacy improvement. Some concerns towards not capitalizing CS for active, two-way collaboration might also be unintentionally verified here.

PE is also found to abide by Equality and Diversity principles. It welcomes the engagement of diverse groups of actors and follows the Quadruple Helix approach in co-creation activities. These principles are integrated in various PE stages and come in accordance with the ISO standards for a human-centric approach. The transferability of the examined practices was also heightened by reaching a broader audience due to the incorporation of a spectrum of needs based on the participation of different actors. Finally, by examining the general RRI context and how it overlaps with PE implementation, the study finds that there is a beneficial connection between different RRI keys and PE that ultimately enhances fairness, diversity and inclusiveness. It also increases the opportunities for synergies among different RRI keys in order to maximize the effectiveness of the performed activities. The positive impact is observed both on the internal and the broader environment in reference to the examined EC-projects and their activities. It serves both the EC-project defined goals and the inclusive and democratized R&I implementation.

As to the results of the PE implementation, it is evident that all the performed processes should aim in sustainable changes that become concrete innovative forces. Here, there is a clear diffusion of knowledge (both for individual citizens and the broader European communities), that follows the examined PE practices. In addition, the combination of R&I with PE and RRI can also lead to a multi-layered social impact that supports the production of knowledge which directly expresses the needs and views of the society. By creating these interactive exchanges and problem-solving processes, R&I can also close the door to potential scientific overruling and respond to relevant concerns regarding the creation of new expert elites. The substantial social impact of such implementations reflects directly in the end-community. In detail, successful PE practices respond to societal challenges and have a collective impact that is dynamically connected to citizens and their everyday sustainable living. The latter denotes a clear road to responsible innovation based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), prioritized by EC and the United Nations.

Previously defined and potential difficulties regarding the implementation of human-centric PE also came up within the examined EC-funded projects. Apart from public reluctance and the challenges of integrating the public input in decision making, the study found that there can be a risk of having a mechanistic rather than a genuine public participation in these processes. As indicated previously, the goal of sustainability is a fundamental factor for concrete social transformations. The PE activities should therefore enable public participation in order to achieve both short and long-term innovative and responsible results. The implementation of PE processes in EC-funded projects also shows that different co-creation approaches can enhance the potential of project goals. Concurrently, and in order to ensure the legitimacy of scientific suggestions it is advised to include public participation in different levels of research alongside with ‘downstream’ engagement which is already implemented. It is evident that after a decade of RRI related initiatives, there is a rich source of outcomes that can serve as learning points for more human-centric R&I that corresponds to societal innovations and enhances responsible growth both on an individual and collective level. By abiding with the concepts, indicated as dimensions of RRI:  anticipation, reflexivity, inclusion and responsiveness, R&I can lead the way for more democratized innovation processes that bring beneficial outcomes at a regional, national and international level. 

Read the full paper here.