Publication of D1.2 Theoretical framework


PRO-Ethics Theoretical Framework:
Ethics of Participation in European Research and Innovation

In the course of PRO-Ethics’ exploration of participatory practices in innovation processes, the Theoretical framework (D1.2) is the first publicly disseminated systemic study of PRO-Ethics, setting the ground of the PRO-Ethics project’s rationale . This study offers a critical review of literature and practices related to ethics and participatory practices in innovation, defining the framing of ethics of participation applied to innovation processes.

Possible pathways for ethics of participation

The way ethics and participatory practices interact in the field of research and innovation (R&I ) is far from self-evident, especially when the field of citizen or public participation is widened to a more granular approach on participants, and on modes and outcomes of participation, which are part of this theoretical framework. Diverse perspectives compete in a field in which, as far as public funding is involved, regulations and practices meet ethical challenges and scrupulous guidelines to achieve public acceptance and legitimacy. Combining ethics of innovation with participation opens pathways aiming to secure the legitimacy and viability of processes and products, in regards with future developments and societal outcomes of innovations. In publicly funded research and innovation, how could ethics and participatory processes be effectively merged? What would be the framing and the features of ethics of participation? How, inversely, could participatory practices align with ethical challenges? To what extent are current funding schemes and policy-making in ethics and participation sketching the contours of ethics of participation? Beyond the well-trodden yet complex territory of citizen participation, what other forms of participatory processes could be potentially considered and related to ethics of participation? What would be the main added-value of ethics of participation in innovation processes and how could quality criteria be applied to undertake efficient initiatives?

This study aims at unveiling general principles and methodologies of participatory practices in innovation, matching them with the basic features and concerns of contemporary ethics in research and innovation (R&I), regulatory gaps and potential controversies. Taking stock of the overall blurred vision that R&I literature and practices manifest in regards with participation, this critical review faces this challenge by opening up the meanings of participation and offering a multi-layered approach, combining theoretical considerations with policy-making and empirical forms, in a pluralist approach. As such, this comprehensive methodical approach does not provide an exhaustive overview but aims at clarifying the various levels, through a critical review of existing positions and possibilities.

The first part of this publication focuses on innovation through regulations and policy-making, as well as the role of innovation actors and participatory forms in bottom-up initiatives. Exploring the various dimensions of ethics of innovation and their theoretical and practical implications in R&I, this analysis grid shows the potential of new innovation approaches, whose features connect to ethics diversely. Across formalised procedures (Ethics reviews) and a wide set of policies that nurture research ethics, research integrity, and social/societal implications, policy-making has provided a wide spectrum of ethical standards, norms and regulations. For publicly funded R&I, ethical compliance has allowed for a monitoring of interests and ethical conflicts and their better identification, which could be considered as an asset on the qualitative guarantees it allows.

Participatory processes and the ways to categorise them are explored in the second part of this study, where the diversity of participatory approaches is tackled by a systematic opening up of all possibilities, encompassing both participation for ethics and ethics of participation, and all actors of participatory processes, further to citizen participation. There is no single definition of innovative participatory practices as themselves refer to a wide array of options, both in terms of possibilities and in terms of quality or legitimacy. While soft law offers only indirect recommendations and no option of a comprehensive regulatory framing, this complexity of participatory practices have shown the extent of a field that encompasses a great variety of features, which do not always share a common ground, neither in processes, nor in actors and outcomes. The very problematic nature of “participation”, in this sense, raises the question, on governance level, of the possibility to have a unified framework. Consequently, ethics of participation appear as a new playground for experimentation, which can draw from general considerations from the scientific literature in the well-developed field of deliberative democracy, notably, or in institutionalised participatory forms such as citizen science, which allow for a more precise identification of processes and outcomes.

The third and last part of this study consists of a critical analysis on participation and best practices, mainly from governance level, following the underlying critical literature review on the subject. While the connection of ethics with participation is under-developed on the level of regulations and policy-making, some indicators and ways to identify a path towards active forms of participation are outlined. With the leverage of publicly funded research and innovation, the embeddedness of participation in ethics of research and innovation can act as a powerful multiplier. The content is yet to be defined across categories and indicators, while some configurations can be promoted as primarily representative of ethical requisites, benefitting the quality of innovation processes. In the absence of a straightforward connection between ethics and participation, some good practices could be underlined in the direction of optimal inclusion of challenges raised on both sides.

Main assumptions deriving from the critical review

The main conclusions and assumptions outlined in this study identify the main blind spots that will be tackled by the upcoming contribution of the PRO-Ethics Framework, drawing from these difficulties and conflicting dimensions, following one of the main conclusions of this study: “participation can be considered as the epitome of innovation ethics, provided its multidimensionality, and the depth and nature of the involvement, are clarified at the outset.”

This study offers a comprehensive presentation of existing definitions and possibilities, analysing the stratified field that stands at the intersection of ethics, research and innovation, and participatory practices. This complete state of the art follows a pluralist approach, grounded on the principle that no approach should take precedence over another:

“There is no single approach towards participative innovation processes, however, the clear distinction of activity dimensions, timelines, expected outcomes and types of participants can provide a common reference. In response to this need, the use of a common taxonomy and common indicators in PRO-Ethics will be the focus of the next deliverables of the PRO-Ethics theoretical framework (WP1). We may have to decide on our priorities since many possibilities exist.”4

Although the tendency to promote more intense forms of participation has created a bias, this study illustrates that the quality of a participatory process depends on the context (what is desirable) and requires critical handling. Also, the gaps in the connection of ethics with participation in regulation and policy-making that have been outlined will be part of PRO-Ethics framework, following this theoretical review and the difficulties that have been underlined.

Under the umbrella of “responsible research and innovation”, a strong European commitment has been taken for the promotion of sustainable and ethically sound R&I throughout its various stages. Responsible research and innovation (RRI) has initiated a space for experimentation in R&I participatory practices that keeps evolving, alongside innovation issues and societal challenges. Finding some regulatory gaps and combining ethical issues with participation broadly defined, new indicators of efficiency arise. This theoretical framework has shown the precedence of ethics upon laws and regulations. By putting forward the notion of responsibility, RRI has opened new avenues of reflection. Yet, theoretical considerations rely on the capacity of public schemes to be attractive without falling into the trap of over-regulation or in that of too restrictive frameworks.

The PRO-Ethics Theoretical Framework can be downloaded here.

By Kalli Giannelos and Bernard Reber

Published 31.07.2020


1PRO-Ethics is supported by the European Commission (European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation programme). More information on the PRO-Ethics project can be found online:

² PRO-Ethics considers research as part of innovation processes, and usually combines research and innovation (R&I), although their distinctive specificities are acknowledged.

³ PRO-Ethics Theoretical Framework: p. 97.

4PRO-Ethics Theoretical Framework: p. 93