Third General Assembly Meeting

This year’s general assembly meeting marked the mid-point of the PRO-Ethics project. It was thus conceptualised both as a platform for stocktaking and for focusing the still somewhat diffuse moving parts of the project towards our shared goals, laying the groundwork for the years to come.

The meeting took place on 25+26 November 2021 and was divided into seven sessions:

1. Past, Present and Future of PRO-Ethics
The online meeting was opened by welcoming words from Werner Wilke, the director of VDI/VDE-IT, who situated the significance of participation in research and innovation both within his own organisation and in the wider context of research funding policy. His welcome was followed by a speech by Sibylle Quennet, spokesperson of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, who reinforced Wilke’s position and voiced the need as policymakers to support participatory initiatives, to make research and innovation more relevant to the wider public and strengthen democratic principles.

After this welcome, project coordinator Dorothea Sturn led the consortium through the accomplishments of the project so far, its current status, and the tasks still ahead, with a specific focus on the need for long-term planning.

2. Current Status of the Pilots
The second session was implemented as an interactive exercise guided by ZSI, with pairs of RFO partners introducing their pilots to RFO and other project partners in breakout rooms with the help of five questions:

1. Your pilot in one sentence
2. A major constraint you overcame
3. Your most surprising learning
4. Something you would never do again – what to avoid
5. The next planned steps – any need/support from other partners

Afterwards, the pilots were presented in the plenary by the members of each group. One important dimension this session made obvious was the different stages of implementation the pilots are in – while some partners are still very much in the planning phase, with many aspects yet undecided, other partners have already implemented first activities with their target groups.

Some of the issues brought up are congruent with others already voiced in different meetings, such as questions of how to tackle biases in recruiting, how to deal with hierarchies and different needs in any engaged group of participants, what methodologies to employ in participatory activities, and how to get from the everyday lived experience of citizens to a more abstract form of overarching needs.

3. Capacity Building: Cross-Learning on Ethics
The final session of day one was designed in collaboration between DBT, TUD and ZSI, and was dedicated to capacity building on ethical issues when implementing participatory approaches in the context of RFO activities. Methodologically, the session was structured by a case simulation distributed to partners prior to the GA (see Annex). This simulated case conjured a complex participatory activity with vulnerable stakeholder groups under less than ideal circumstances, allowing the RFO partners to explore possible challenges and pitfalls they might themselves be confronted with when implementing their pilot II cases. Working in fixed breakout groups, the partners were first asked to explore potentially relevant stakeholder groups, define ethical issues of the participatory processes for and with the stakeholder group, and come up with possible strategies to tackle each ethical issue. Adhering to the logic of the Draft Ethics Framework, these strategies were divided into those relevant before, during, and after the participatory activity took place. This was followed by a process reflection, where the partners were asked to discuss four questions within the same breakout groups:

• Why do you think participation was important in this particular case study?
• How did you decide what ethical issues and risks are relevant?
• What went well?
• What was difficult?

Through this structure, the session allowed for the RFO partners to dive more deeply into the intricacies of implementing participatory activities while also providing inputs for the technical partners and especially the further development of the Ethics Framework.

4. Stakeholder Engagement: Sustainability and Scaling
The first session of the second day of the general assembly meeting was dedicated to developing a first idea of what stakeholder engagement might look like for the partners in the years to come. After a short input on stakeholder engagement by Nesta, partners collaborated in breakout rooms to define:

1. A Vision: What does success look like in 2024?
2. A Stakeholder Map: Who will contribute to your vision?
3. MVPs: The most important blockers and supporters along the way.

Guided by a pre-defined group of moderators, the aim was for each partner to leave the session with a clearer picture of the first steps to be taken towards stakeholder engagement, and to equip all partners with the tools and confidence to produce and action their own stakeholder engagement plan. At the end, Nesta presented their template for a stakeholder engagement plan, with tips on how to maximise supporters and convince or consider blockers.

5. Update on CDE Activities
In this session, RCN gave a short overview of the current state of Communication, Dissemination and Exploitation (CDE) activities in PRO-Ethics, what was planned for the years to come, and presented the newly developed project poster as well as the still-in-development animated video.

6. Publication Workshop
This session by ZSI and VDI/VDE-IT was intended as a space for project partners to exchange on project outputs relevant for publication. After a brainstorming on possible topics in the plenary, the partners were allowed to self-select into breakout rooms to explore potential thematic foci, collaborations, and avenues for publication, with the aim to facilitate the creation of sustainable project outputs. The sessions resulted in three more tangible ideas for scientific papers:

Pilot Auto-Ethnography: A method-focused paper looking at the iterative process through which the Ethics Framework is developed, scrutinising the pilot approach chosen in PRO-Ethics.

Institutional Barriers towards Participation in RFOs: Looking at internal and external challenges towards the implementation of participatory activities in research funding organisations, but also highlighting support systems that make success possible.

Scaling up of Participatory Activities: A practice paper looking at the tensions between theory and practice, the question of which participatory activities can be scaled at all, as well as the flexibility necessary to implement participatory activities.

Further discussed were the following topics: 1) Participatory Practices and Ethics Issues in Innovation, which was written as a deliverable for WP1 and has already been adapted into two possible publications; 2) How to make sure participatory processes balance global and local aspects; 3) Participatory evaluation of social impact of R&D programmes; and 4) Best practices of participation in RFOs.

7. Meeting with the Advisory Board
In this final session of the general assembly meeting, members of the advisory board were invited to discuss with PRO-Ethics partners four distinct questions highly relevant at this point of the PRO-Ethics project:

• What can RFOs really learn from each other (and what rather not)?
• How to engage citizens on the Ethics Framework?
• How to deal with constraints experienced by RFO partners/within the pilots?
• How to tackle power imbalances within the pilots?

Partners were again able to self-select into breakout rooms which each included a member of the advisory board as well as a facilitator from ZSI. The results of the discussion were then shared in the plenary.

Finally, feedback was collected from the participants of the general assembly meeting on three questions:

• What is your main take away from the GA meeting?
• What was surprising?
• What have you missed? What would you like to see more of?

Responses to these questions show a need for further exchange especially between the pilots, and work on concrete and real challenges the RFO partners face in the context of the implementation of their pilots. This need might directly be addressed with the next Cross-Pilot Learning Workshop scheduled for April 2022.

By Stefanie Schuerz.
Photo: PRO-Ethics.

Published 10.12.21