Three lessons on getting citizen participation right from research ethics and integrity bodies

Develop an adaptable framework that incorporates what already exists and take practical inspiration from citizen science and other public participation. Even though the barriers may be high, ethical participation will enrich research and innovation practices. These were the learnings from PRO-Ethics' workshop with research ethics and integrity experts in September.

PRO-Ethics looks to test new, ethical ways to involve citizens and stakeholders in three fields of action that are key for research and innovation (R&I) funding organisations: in innovation projects, strategy development, and evaluation processes. While real-world pilots delivered by PRO-Ethics’ consortium generate significant practice-based learning about how R&I funding organisations can involve citizens in their work, the PRO-Ethics consortium is keen to learn as much as possible from others who have considered similar questions on how to ensure the most value is gained from citizen participation. Research ethics and integrity experts are one group that offer useful perspectives on what best practice principles look like, given the longstanding engagement these bodies have with potential risks and challenges to citizen participation in scientific research. As such, PRO-Ethics hosted a workshop to engage and learn from this group of experts, who raised important considerations for PRO-Ethics partners. The main takeaway from the discussions being that involving citizens ethically in the activities of research funding organisations simply makes for better research and innovation.

So what did we learn?

Lesson 1: Develop a framework that’s adaptable and incorporates what already exists

When PRO-Ethics met with research and integrity bodies on the 7th of September, there were representatives from more than 20 organisations gathered to share their experience and expertise. To kick off, Dr Krista Varantola from ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, delivered an insightful intervention on the ways in which the ALLEA ethics protocol was developed and disseminated. ALLEA’s working group developed the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity that has been used across the region and adapted for multiple scientific research needs, acting as an anchor on which to build on. Key considerations raised by this intervention for PRO-Ethics were linked to how PRO-Ethics could also make use of this existing framework and others, to borrow from what already works in other scientific practices. Additionally, as PRO-Ethics develops a framework for research and innovation funding organisations specifically, insights on how ALLEA’s tools were able to be used as guide in multiple contexts were extremely important for the consortium.

Lesson 2: Take practical inspiration from citizen science and other public participation in scientific practice

The second intervention came from Dr Claire Murray of the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) as an expert on citizen science and its value in pushing the boundaries of scientific practice, while also remaining grounded in the needs of people and communities. Dr Murray gave a range of real-life examples of citizen science where useful lessons on ethical practice could be drawn for research and funding organisations. ‘Citizens’ can include many different people and communities, and these groups can be involved actively or less so. Therefore, the lessons from the different citizen science and public participation that has involved different groups and methods offer a wealth of knowledge that PRO-Ethics can tap into. An emphasis again was made on how ethical practice has developed to fit different contexts such as ‘everyday ethics’ in social work or patient participation in medical research.

Lesson 3: The barriers may be high but ethical citizen participation will make for better research and innovation

The final part of the workshop allowed for more open discussion centred around one main question: How does the participation of citizens and other non-traditional stakeholders support good scientific practice? The workshop group, which included research ethics and integrity experts and PRO-Ethics partners running pilots on citizen participation discussed barriers presented by citizen participation for research funding organisations specifically, drawing on the real-life experience of the pilots taking place. The effects of participation on different phases of research were also considered. Much of the discussion raised further questions around how we untangle ethics from integrity, whether the activities of research funding organisations are definitely different from other scientific research practice. But all concluded that participation, when done ethically, properly planned and considered, can greatly enrich all research and innovation practices.

The key takeaway was to ensure careful consideration of all aspects when it comes to citizen participation in research and innovation. Learning from other scientific practices that involve citizens successfully and creating a framework that can be used as an anchor for R&I funding organisations, rather than a strict code that will not be adaptable to multiple contexts, will be a key driver for PRO-Ethics’ success.

By Nesta
Photo and illustrations: Nesta
Published: 12.10.2022