Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / May 19, 2017

The role of citizens in the future of science

Written by Philip Boucher. The links between science and policy have been strengthened in recent years. We often hear about…

The role of citizens in the future of science
Written by Philip Boucher. The links between science and policy have been strengthened in recent years. We often hear about the role of scientific evidence in policy-making, but policy also has a substantial influence on the way that science develops. Scientific research is not only about advancing knowledge, but also responding to the most important opportunities and challenges facing European citizens. How do we know what these opportunities and challenges are, and how can we prepare a programme of scientific research that will deliver a meaningful response? A workshop co-organised by STOA, the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS, STOA’s Swiss counterpart), the Mission of Switzerland to the EU, and SwissCore on this subject presented a valuable opportunity to discuss how citizen engagement can help us to respond to key opportunities and challenges in the 9th EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP9), which will succeed the current Horizon 2020 programme.

Setting the scene

The role of citizens in the future of science
The role of citizens in the future of science
Opening the workshop Paul Rübig, (EPP, Austria), First STOA Vice-Chair, referred to the importance of independent expert assessment of scientific and technological options, both for the European Parliament and for the public. The moderator of the workshop, Lars Klüver, Director of the Danish Board of Technology Foundation, then introduced the topic, emphasising four different levels of citizen involvement in science:
  1. Engagement in science policy by shaping broad social frameworks;
  2. Engagement in agenda-setting for science, for example by highlighting priorities;
  3. Steering science by influencing how scientific activity is conducted;
  4. Direct citizen participation in science, e.g. by collecting data.
A key research project which focuses upon the role of citizen engagement in the future of science is currently in its final stages and formed the backdrop for the workshop. The project, CIMULACT (Citizens and Multi-Actor Consultation on Horizon 2020), involved the consultation of more than a thousand citizens in 30 countries, with the aim of involving them in setting the direction of European research, in particular through the next EU framework programme for research and innovation. Sergio Bellucci, Director of TA-SWISS, explained that the report would be finalised over the coming year and should help develop scenarios for research in the future.

European Science – What is the role and responsibility of citizens?

The first panel, on citizens’ role in and responsibility for European science, was opened by Gudela Grote from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, who focused upon the role of citizens as recipients and sources of scientific data, as well as critical monitors of scientific activity and promoters of specific research agendas. Asked what our responsibilities as citizens are, Grote suggested that we should be open to scientific enquiry, and ready to learn from what science has to offer. At the same time, Grote highlighted the importance of consent to participate in research, either as direct subjects or as producers of data. Finally, Grote suggested we could improve citizen participation by translating and discussing ideas, by being transparent about the interests behind scientific projects, and by truthfully reporting both successes and failures. Over the last decades, science has developed a huge infrastructure and set of norms and became highly specialised. Daniel Wyler from the University of Zürich noted that this has distanced science from citizens, at a time when it needs citizen engagement for most for its data experiments. More citizen involvement, he argued, would benefit everyone. Mathea Fammels, from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), explained how the EIT was set up in 2008 to respond to some of the issues explored at the workshop. Fammels also discussed how we can address innovation differently, with a more people-centred approach, and how we can overcome a tendency to a ‘silo mentality’. Fammels concluded in explaining how, by putting connectivity and education at the heart of the EIT’s approach, they support many cutting-edge innovators and entrepreneurs to create start-ups, as well as helping existing companies to create jobs and improve society. Finally, Pearl Dykstra – from Erasmus University Rotterdam and member of the High Level Group of scientific advisors to the Cabinet of European Commissioners – explained how a national research agenda for the Netherlands was produced through a call for citizens to submit questions via a popular TV show, featuring prominent ministers and researchers. This dynamic and engaging approach invigorated scientists and citizens alike.

Towards FP9 – How can we address citizens’ concerns for the future through science?

The second panel was opened by Kurt Vandenberghe, from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Vandenberghe explained how citizens’ involvement in science is not new for the Commission, but a continuation of a 15 year journey. Work remains to be done, however. Vandenberghe highlighted the need to develop appropriate measurements of excellence, and called for a more open approach to innovation, promoting user-centred innovation. Eva Kaili (S&D, Greece), Chair of STOA, then took the floor to explain how the various STOA activities respond to the need for good-quality links between science, policy and society, for example through STOA’s MEP-scientist pairing scheme. Kaili highlighted in particular the issue of fake news, outlining possible responses including a European science media hub led by the European Parliament. Kaili argued that, while we should ensure that good-quality data and evidence are available to citizens, it is imperative that the latter are free to access any content and to make decisions for themselves. This freedom of information, she argued, is more important than combatting information that is considered incorrect. Tracey Brown from Sense about Science – which promotes the use of sound scientific evidence by decision-makers of all kinds – concluded the second panel, sharing a video about the importance of evidence in policy and public life. Truth and evidence, she argued, do not hold enough weight in public affairs. She suggested that we equip citizens for reasoning and encourage alignments between experts and the public to push important issues forward effectively. If you missed the workshop, you can watch a recording.

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