Published on May 28, 2014

Engage2020: Ensuring society has a voice in research and innovation


By Houda Davis

Houda Davis is a Research Assistant at Involve interested in participation in health, the environment and science and technology.

photo credit: Antonella Sinopoli

photo credit: Antonella Sinopoli

Last week I spent three days in Sofia, Bulgaria, for my first Engage2020 workshop and consortium meeting. Engage2020 is European Commission funded research project which aims to map who’s doing what in the world of societal engagement in science and technology. This work is being done in preparation for Horizon2020, the biggest EU funded programme ever, which will invest €80 billion into research and innovation across Europe over the next 7 years. Horizon2020 has identified seven Grand Challenges ranging from demographic change to efficient energy. This is about ‘tackling societal challenges’ and therefore it’s crucial that the public is more involved in developing  more robust and sustainable approaches to complex problems. This is a hugely exciting window of opportunity for those of us interested in bridging the gap between the scientific community, policy makers and wider society.

Engage2020 has already found some excellent methods and policies supporting participation and a few of these were covered at the Sofia Workshop. For example Science Shops, an initiative that supports students to carry out projects with/for a community or voluntary group. Science Shops have been so successful they are being replicated at universities across Europe and beyond. In a fascinating presentation on citizens and crowd science, Chiara Franzoni from the Polytechnic University of Milan described how projects like Galaxy Zoo and Fold It tap into the public as a resource, analysing huge amounts of data to produce transparent, verifiable and open processes. We also heard from Jenni Chambers on how RCUK are embedding public engagement in research. Jenni outlined some incentives designed to encourage researchers to engage with society including the new Researcher Development Framework (RDF), Catalyst Funding for projects with a social engagement element and specialist centres such as the Beacons for Public Engagement.

During the workshop we also heard about some barriers to engagement: despite RCUK mechanisms to encourage engagement, researchers and scientists have been slow to take advantage of funding and support, which perhaps reflects the need for more profound culture change to permeate through these institutions. This got me thinking about the parallels between this work and another large project I have been working on called NHS Citizen, which is also about promoting culture change and has a whole workstream dedicated to ‘Changing Relationships’. The European Commission, universities, research institutes, the NHS – these are all massive institutions and persuading people of the benefits of wider societal engagement will not happen overnight. Another barrier to wider engagement is the lack of CSO representation in policy making processes around science and technology, as described by Steffi Ober, project leader of the publicly funded civil society platform Zivilgesellschaftliche Plattform Forschungswende. Steffi made the case for the integration of policy makers, the scientific community, industry and the public to shape societal visions and support sustainable technological and social innovations.

With available funding and increased interest in participation, Engage2020 can ensure that society has a voice in Horizon2020 projects, promoting better connections between scientists and society, and essentially developing more sustainable approaches to Europe’s toughest challenges.

It was excellent to meet the Engage2020 team and special thanks goes out to our Bulgarian hosts for organising the meeting and ensuring we never went hungry! We will be exploring societal engagement in science research and policy making in more detail at the Future Methods Workshop in London on the 16th and 17th June where we will bring experts on deliberative dialogue, digital engagement and citizen science together for what promises to be an exciting two days.

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