Considering participation across research and innovation will require sufficient buy-in

Gathering sufficient buy-in to ensure participation is considered across research and innovation projects continues to be a major barrier for research funding organisations. An ethical framework to guide stakeholder participation would be useful for organisations needing to demonstrate the value of involving citizens and end-users in innovation processes.

While PRO-Ethics develops a comprehensive ethical framework, using pilots to test and iterate on its work over a period of four years, it is important that the views of others confronting similar challenges are brought in to inform the framework’s design. To this end, we ran a workshop in January 2021 to share our year one findings and provide a space for other research funding organisations (RFOs) to reflect on similar challenges they faced in relation to the involvement of citizens in research and innovation practices. Together we explored whether experiences outside of PRO-Ethics matched those uncovered by our research and what other approaches were being developed to address similar concerns.

The workshop took place online and combined presentations from PRO-Ethics partners with structured discussions exploring the experiences of others. We were joined by organisations from across Europe, including the OECD, and RFOs in Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Serbia, Spain, and the UK. We captured individual RFO experiences in a worksheet that was used to gather insights that were shared in the wider group discussion.

While there was a fair amount of overlap between the experiences of other RFOs and what PRO-Ethics’ research had uncovered, the workshop dialogue provided further depth to our findings, as well as shedding light on alternative perspectives. Key takeaways from the discussion included:

1. Identifying why citizen engagement is valuable

While citizen engagement is becoming more and more important, RFOs said that it is often difficult to gather sufficient buy-in. Proving the exact value that citizens and stakeholders bring to a project was one of the biggest barriers faced. There was general agreement that participation can be helpful to build legitimacy for innovation outputs but this argument alone was often not enough to convince sceptics. Therefore, the PRO-Ethics framework would be helpful if it could provide a clear rationale for why citizens and stakeholders should be involved in research and innovation processes and practices, as well as how they can be brought in in a meaningful way.

2. Understanding when citizens should be involved

Similar to the need to pinpoint the exact value of citizen participation, RFOs told PRO-Ethics that the framework should be clear about when citizen participation is needed. What kinds of projects should citizens be involved in, at what stages and to what degree, were all live questions for the RFOs in the workshop. Having clarity on when an area of innovation must involve citizen participation would be beneficial to the RFOs.

3. Shedding light on how limited resources can be maximised

The RFOs commented that they often lack the time to properly consider participation, its purpose and the value for it. Those still thinking about whether to involve citizens at all found the perceived lack of time and resources to be one of the biggest barriers to getting started. As one participant commented participation is ‘often a nice-to-have that doesn’t get off the ground’. The framework would be useful if it provided simple step-by-step guidance for time-poor RFOs.

4. Creating consensus about what participation means

Both within individual organisations and between RFOs, having a shared language to discuss participation was identified as something that was needed for two reasons. First, it would help facilitate conversations with those who needed to be convinced in order to gain sufficient buy-in. Second, sharing the same language would help RFOs learn from each other.

5. Highlighting where citizen engagement is useful with real-life examples

RFOs said that there was a lack of real-life case studies of citizen participation that they could learn and replicate from. Having examples of how others implemented participation into their projects would provide weight to an ethical framework’s guidance - beyond the abstract. Particular concerns such as participative processes being hijacked by lobbyists or citizens not being involved in a meaningful way, were raised as risks RFOs were unsure of how they could mitigate against.

A first version of the PRO-Ethics framework will be published in March 2021, and Consortium RFOs will start their second round of pilots later this year. As these activities develop, we will continue gathering inputs and feedback from other stakeholders and welcome any opportunity to share our work and learn from others.

By PRO-Ethics partner Nesta

Published 11.02.2021