PRO-Ethics will develop a best practise to ethically engage citizens


"Through PRO-Ethics, we try to find solutions to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of participatory approaches," says project coordinator Dorothea Sturn.

"Citizen involvement and citizen science generally imply concepts such as inclusion, openness and democratisation. Nevertheless, the processes and activities involved often carry significant ethical risks of exploitation, manipulation, coercion and control. In PRO-Ethics, we work towards more relevant, fair and effective participatory approaches. We aim to develop a best practice and disseminate it all across Europe and beyond," explains Dorothea Sturn, coordinator of PRO-Ethics.

Over the past years, active participation of citizens in science and innovation has gained prominence. These developments are promising and create numerous benefits at various levels: at the level of citizens, researchers and innovators, as well as at the level of funding organisations and society as a whole. Research funding organisations (RFOs) hope to create innovative products, solutions and processes closer to the actual needs and desires of citizens by gathering the expert knowledge of non-traditional stakeholders such as citizens, public and semi-public caretakers, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and so on. This inclusion can be vital in creating a more relevant and effective innovation process.

However, the ways in which citizens are included, and the extent to which ethical issues are considered, are not formalised and differ widely across countries and organisations. All these issues are compounded by the question of how to protect participating citizens, and how to avoid any potential exploitation in often hierarchical research processes.

Ethical guidelines for participation

In PRO-Ethics, 15 partners from 12 European countries have come together to test new, ethical ways to involve citizens in decision making processes. The consortium consists of eight RFOs from across Europe, five expert partners and two international organisations.

PRO-Ethics will create an ethics framework including a set of practical guidelines and actionable criteria for assessing the quality and ethics of participation processes. The framework has the potential to benefit stakeholders across the EU and beyond. It will help organisations engage citizens without disregarding ethical principles of fairness, transparency, gender equality, privacy, and sustainability.

11 pilot cases

The ethics framework will be developed, applied, tested and validated through 11 practical cases in the form of experimental pilots run by the RFO partners. In addition, key stakeholders from economy, society, policymaking, R&I ethics, and R&I funding will be consulted in various ways throughout the project.

"We hope to achieve workable solutions for the participating funding organisations, by developing better mechanisms for involving citizens and stakeholders in their projects, processes and evaluations. Subsequently, we want to create a best practice that should also be used by other research endeavours and research funding organisations. We want to set new ethical standards," says Sturn.

In June, initial learnings from the first phase of pilots were discussed in a virtual cross-learning workshop. In July, the project’s first paper manuscript was published, presenting a critical review of participatory practices and ethics issues in innovation. Several events and deliverables are scheduled throughout the fall and Sturn is pleased with the progress so far:

"All partners are actively involved, learn from each other and gain insight into the diverse landscape of the various participatory approaches."

By Anne Winsnes Rødland
Photo: Barbara Glinsner

Published 04.09.2020

More about the cross-learning workshop

More about the pilot cases

More about PRO-Ethics' theoretical framework, a critical review of literature and practices related to ethics and participatory practices in innovation